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Court ruling on drunk-driving unlikely to water down penalties

The folks who make a living serving alcohol have been busy knocking on doors at the B.C. Legislature recently, visiting policymakers Premier Christy Clark, Solicitor-General Shirley Bond and Finance Minister Kevin Falcon. They're looking for relief from the damage done to their businesses by the province's tough drunk-driving laws.

A year ago, they almost won a rollback from the B.C. Liberal government. Today, the industry found their audiences have become largely unsympathetic.

Pub owners had more luck with the courts this week. They backed a Charter challenge to the law and won a partial victory, with Mr. Justice Jon Sigurdson of the B.C. Supreme Court ruling that a driver subject to a major automatic roadside prohibition after failing a roadside screening test should have an explicit avenue to appeal that reading.

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The judgment leaves a bizarre patchwork of old and new penalties in place until the government can amend the law next spring. But there's little indication that the province will take that opportunity to water the law down.

Ms. Clark gave a tearful endorsement of the new system of penalties last week at a news event featuring the parents of Alexa Middelaer, a four-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver in 2008.

At the same time, Ms. Clark rolled out new statistics showing the number of fatalities related to drunk driving has clearly dropped since "Alexa's law" came into effect in September, 2010. Compared to the five years previous, the annual death toll is down by 40 per cent. "There can't be any more urgent public safety issue than this one," Ms. Clark said.

But there is another huge benefit, from the government's perspective, that hasn't been trumpeted: The new law also led to a huge drop in the number of drunk-driving cases going to court.

The biggest load on the provincial court system is Criminal Code impaired driving cases. And under the new law, the number of files forwarded to Crown counsel has declined by a staggering 73 per cent. That's 7,000 fewer cases expected to go to trial in the coming year because police were able to dispense roadside justice instead.

At a time when the government is being hammered at every level of the justice system – not enough legal aid, judges or sheriffs, plus prisons overflowing with people awaiting trial – this is a compelling statistic.

So compelling that Matt MacNeil thinks it is the real reason the government changed the law.

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"They pushed a law through because the government wanted to save court costs," he said in an interview on Thursday. Mr. MacNeil is president of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees of B.C., which bankrolled the court challenge to that law.

He said the tougher rules have devastated his industry, and accuses the government of "fear-mongering" because it hyped the law as the toughest in the country.

The industry argues that it is far too early to determine whether, statistically, the law really has reduced fatalities. But Mr. MacNeil doesn't deny that the law has changed behaviour, resulting in a drop in business: "The fear was created because you gave the police the ability to be judge and jury at roadside."

While the hospitality industry hasn't given up hope that it can persuade the Clark government to modify the law, it is also eyeing the courts for additional respite. Mr. MacNeil's group may appeal the judgment to try to have the penalties for drivers who land in the "warn" category knocked down. And they won't discourage any of the 15,000 or more drivers who have already been dealt immediate roadside penalties from seeking redress.

Ms. Bond can only hope that won't be the case. There is no doubt, however, that this week's court ruling will put more impaired driving cases into the court system as the old rules come back into force for those who fail a roadside sobriety test.

But dilute the penalties? Ms. Bond can't see any good reason for it.

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"I can tell you where I've landed," Ms. Bond said. "When I reviewed the results after one year of the new impaired driving laws in British Columbia and recognized that 45 people are alive today that wouldn't have been before – I think the laws have done exactly what we hoped they would do."

By the numbers

The B.C. Supreme Court found part of the province's drunk-driving law unconstitutional this week because there is no clear avenue to challenge the results of a roadside sobriety test when a driver is found to have a blood alcohol level over .08.

But there is an administrative appeal process through the province's Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, and thousands of drivers have used it since the new law came into effect 14 months ago.

15,000-plus: Number of drivers who have faced an immediate roadside suspension of their licence under the new law after failing a roadside screening test.

1 in 5: Ratio of drivers who have appealed the roadside penalties to the motor vehicle branch.

3 weeks: Most appeals are heard within this time frame.

12-17 per cent: The success rate of appeals.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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