Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Oct.  4, 2010)


Popular but dangerous law


  By John Martin


It would appear there's near unanimous approval and support for British Columbia's new impaired driving laws. With the exception of the BC Civil Liberties Association, I really haven't come across much in the way of concern or critique regarding the new legislation. Even the opposition NDP, who normally throw a hissy fit at each and every move the government makes, is supportive.

I wonder what the reaction from lawyers, academics and the NDP would have been if the government had found a way to do an end run around the search and seizure laws so police could confiscate pagers and cellphones from known drug dealers without laying criminal charges. Needless to say, they'd be howling bloody murder.

But trampling on due process, the rule of law and people's civil liberties is apparently quite acceptable - so long as we're going after impaired drivers and impaired drivers only. I hope people understand this legislation represents the most draconian and intrusive government initiative in more than half a century. You would have to go back to the internment of Japanese Canadians and the confiscation of their property to find a law that was more an affront to natural justice than this one.

Your rights, supposedly guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, are as of now, null and void, with respect to suspected impaired driving. The police no longer need to establish reasonable and probable grounds. On a whim, a hunch, or a grudge, they can pull over whomever they please and needn't worry about defending those actions in court. Essentially, they can now charge, convict and pass sentence on the spot. As Robert Holmes, president of the BC Civil Liberties Association so eloquently explained to me, you have more rights to contest a $10 parking ticket than you do to fight this new law.

Supporters of the law are quick to point out that one may appeal a suspension to the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles. This is an administrative review only and doesn't allow one to question the breathalyzer analysis or cross examine the police officer. It is a smoke screen to create the illusion of fairness. In any event, the suspension will have been fully served by the time a ruling came down from this charade.

This legislation was brought in because it is expensive and time consuming to prosecute impaired driving charges. There are numerous defence lawyers who specialize in this area and have a remarkable acquittal rate for their clients. Too many sloppy, incompetent and insufficiently trained police result in even more acquittals and charges being dropped altogether. The new law essentially detours around the Criminal Code and imposes a penalty, which can amount to a lengthy suspension and thousands of dollars; basically the same punishment as a criminal conviction minus the criminal record.

I always strive to be careful with hyperbole, but without a hint of exaggeration, this law has "police state" written all over it. Even if impaired driving is at unprecedented levels and no one, absolutely no one, is fit to drive after even just one drink, this law is way out of line.

There is no other jurisdiction in North America that provides a scenario where police may act without any accordance for due process or the rule of law. If the .08 cutoff is too lenient, then demand that Ottawa change the law. If there are too many impaired drivers on the road, then hire more police and give them the required training so they can do their job properly and defend their actions in court.

But to simply bypass the Criminal Code and give police absolute unlimited and unaccountable authority to run roughshod over people's rights is outrageous. If we're willing to hold our noses and extend due process to drug traffickers, sex offenders and murderers we should be able to give suspected impaired drivers their day in court as well.

Anything less is disgraceful.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


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