Quebec Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud is ecstatic over a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that approved the seizure of vehicles belonging to repeat drunk drivers.
Mr. St-Arnaud said Thursday's ruling will give prosecutors added impetus to demand tougher sentences in the province's fight against drunk driving.
In a case involving repeat offender Alphide Manning, who was arrested near Baie Comeau in April, 2010, the seven Supreme Court judges unanimously overturned two lower court rulings denying the Crown the right to confiscate his vehicle.
The lower court had ruled that confiscating the vehicle was too harsh a penalty for Mr. Manning, who pleaded guilty to two counts of impaired driving and was sentenced to a total of 17 months in jail. But the Supreme Court found that, given Mr. Manning's previous convictions for impaired driving, it was appropriate to require that he forfeit his vehicle.
"We are not satisfied that the impact of the order of forfeiture sought by the Crown was disproportionate," the decision said.
The judges said Mr. Manning's record had to be considered.
"The trial judge erroneously emphasized Mr. Manning's personal circumstances and failed to give appropriate weight … to Mr. Manning's criminal record, including five convictions on alcohol-related driving offences and three for breaches of probation orders or undertakings," the judges said in decision.
Mr. St-Arnaud said the ruling is a message that lower court judges should closely examine repeat offenders' criminal records in determining whether to confiscate a vehicle and give less weight to the impact such a sentence would have on their personal circumstances.
"Today, the Supreme Court has given prosecutors the green light to demand that vehicles be confiscated. And they are also telling judges that they should also take into account a repeat offender's criminal record," Mr. St-Arnaud said.
The minister said the ruling gives him the ammunition to enforce directives he outlined on Wednesday for Crown prosecutors to demand tougher sentences against repeat drunk drivers. Mr. St-Arnaud said that after three convictions, prosecutors should ask judges to order an offender's vehicle confiscated.
The Criminal Code includes provisions that allow this. But the Justice Minister said Quebec courts have been reluctant to impose the sentence. Mr. Arnaud said he hopes attitudes will change because of the Supreme Court ruling.
Former Liberal justice minister and victims right activist Marc Bellemare agrees. He said if repeat offenders cannot show that impounding their vehicle would be unfair and disproportionate, judges may now be more inclined to order seizure.
"The minister needs to hold his ground and seek the enforcement of his directive to have a repeat offender's vehicle confiscated after a third conviction," Mr. Bellemare said in a TVA television interview. "If they [repeat offenders] don't have a vehicle, it complicates their lives considerably."
Mr. St-Arnaud said on Wednesday he will press Ottawa to amend the criminal code to further crack down on drunk driving. He wants repeat offenders to be classified as "dangerous offenders" along with the worst criminals in the country. Mr. St-Arnaud will also demand Ottawa review the Criminal Code to impose tougher jail sentences for repeat offenders.