Home Page News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Advertising Subscribe Reuse & Permissions
Hill Times Events Hill Times Books Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Legislation

Tory, Liberal Senators join chorus opposing justice minister’s drunk-driving proposal

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Senators point to an already backlogged court system that they see getting worse if the blood-alcohol threshold for criminal drunk-driving charges is lowered. But advocates say it would send a strong message and change drivers’ behaviours.

'The courts are really clogged, and to do this when there are so many other issues...I don’t think it’s necessary,' Senate Liberal Mobina Jaffer, left, has said of a proposal by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, right, to lower the blood-alcohol concentration at which drivers can face criminal charges.
The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Senators across party lines, including Ottawa’s former police chief, are criticizing a proposal from the federal justice minister to lower the blood-alcohol threshold for criminal drunk-driving charges, joining criminal lawyers and industry lobby groups pushing back against the move.

Two members of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee and one former member questioned the need for the expanded criminal penalty, and warned it could place an additional burden on Canada’s swamped court system.

That Senate Committee had recommended the opposite approach to managing low blood-alcohol-concentration drunk-driving offences in a report released this summer. The Senators told The Hill Times that administrative penalties already in place in most provinces, which don’t involve the court system, were a better way to handle those cases.

“I’m a little frustrated,” said Senate Liberal Mobina Jaffer (British Columbia) in an interview.

“The courts are really clogged, and to do this when there are so many other issues…I don’t think it’s necessary,” she said.

A shortage of judges and slow process to appoint new ones, mandatory timelines for court proceedings, and a disproportionate amount of time taken up by bail hearings and other legal procedures are among the reasons Canada’s criminal court system is backlogged. Some serious criminal cases have been thrown out by judges when they didn’t proceed within a reasonable amount of time, violating the defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Former Senator Bob Runciman says the lower criminal threshold suggested by the justice minister could burden the courts. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) sent a letter to her provincial counterparts and stakeholders in May, detailing a proposal to allow the laying of criminal charges against drivers caught with a blood-alcohol concentration of 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood instead of the current 80 milligrams.

“I believe that this approach would better respond to the danger posed by drinking drivers,” the letter from Ms. Wilson-Raybould said, noting that the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving had pushed for the change as a stronger deterrent to drunk driving.

“I get the importance of lowering the standard, but I don’t think our system can handle lowering the standard,” said Conservative Senator Vern White (Ontario), who served as Ottawa’s police chief before being appointed to the Upper Chamber.

Both Sen. White and Sen. Jaffer pointed to British Columbia’s system as an example to follow. That province levies administrative penalties—confiscating a driver’s licence and vehicle, for example—for drivers with blood-alcohol concentrations above 0.05, and most other provinces have similar penalties.

Administrative penalties are dealt with through a system separate from the backlogged criminal courts.

Bob Runciman, who retired from the Senate over the summer but chaired the committee as a Conservative while it authored the study, also told The Hill Times in an emailed statement he thought the lower criminal threshold suggested by Ms. Wilson-Raybould could burden the courts, and that other subjects studied by the committee—for example, finding alternatives to the practice of judges staying or stopping prosecutions for serious crimes because of unconstitutional delays in getting to trial—deserved the minister’s attention instead.

‘I get the importance of lowering the standard, but I don’t think our system can handle lowering the standard,’ says Conservative Senator Vern White, left, a former Ottawa police chief. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Several Independent Senators on the committee declined, were unavailable, or did not respond to requests to discuss the report and the justice minister’s proposal. The Legal Affairs Committee has not yet named a chair to replace Mr. Runciman, and the vice-chair, Senate Liberal George Baker (Newfoundland and Labrador), did not respond to requests for comment.

The committee singled out drinking and driving offences in part because they are among the most time-consuming to prosecute, said Sen. White. Defence lawyers can challenge the arresting officer’s grounds for pulling a driver over and for then demanding a breath test; the officer has a limited amount of time to get a suspect from the scene to a police station for a more reliable impairment test; and the defence can try to pick out other mistakes in the arrest procedure, he said.

Sen. Jaffer knows the vulnerabilities to a drunk-driving case well: before being appointed to the Senate, she was a criminal lawyer, and defended clients against drunk-driving charges, she said.

“It became for us defence lawyers an easy case to take on,” she said.

“Often I would be able to find a fault, because, you know, [the police] do so much work, they may not have completely followed [all the proper procedures]. What B.C. courts were finding: that many, many cases were…being thrown out.”

The Canadian Bar Association, which represents lawyers, law students, and professors, also protested Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s proposal in an Aug. 4 open letter to Justice Canada. The letter said that a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 does not necessarily mean a person is impaired, and that “impaired driving is one of the most extensively litigated areas of criminal law, and that volume alone has enormous implications for the system in terms of cost, delay, and uncertainty while cases are pending.”

Saskatchewan’s justice minister echoed these thoughts. Gordon Wyant, who represents the governing conservative Saskatchewan Party, was quoted by CKOM News on Aug. 9 as saying: “If we go to .05…we’re going to have an influx of impaired driving charges,” and that, he said, is “going to have a significant impact on our justice system.” He wouldn’t close the door on supporting the change, however, noting that his federal counterpart had suggested she was open to dialogue.

Several lobby groups for the restaurant and alcoholic beverage industries have also weighed in against the move, warning it could deter patrons from buying any alcohol at all.

Lower limit would send a ‘strong’ message

The government’s proposal has not yet been written into any legislation before Parliament, though the government is pushing ahead with several other reforms related to drugged driving and mandatory roadside testing for alcohol in Bill C-46, which it aims to pass alongside its legislation to legalize marijuana.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould isn’t backing down from her blood-alcohol concentration proposal either. Her office replied to some of the criticisms from the Senators in a written statement to The Hill Times, saying that drivers with a 0.05 blood-alcohol concentration were almost twice as likely to be involved in a fatal crash as those who were sober, and that lowering the criminal limit was a “better” response to that threat than administrative penalties, as it would send a “strong message” and change drivers’ behaviours.

The justice minister used some of the same arguments in her May letter to the provinces and stakeholders, but that letter had also included a background document with a section addressing possible complaints about overburdening the court system.

In that document, the government said the tougher law would deter people from breaking the law and driving while over the limit; that police could choose to use the administrative penalties regardless of the availability of the tougher criminal penalties; and that the limited time and resources available to police officers meant it was “unlikely” that they would “process” significantly more drunk-driving cases even if the law was changed.

The federal justice minister has said earlier research that suggested 0.08 was a proper blood-alcohol threshold underestimated the fatal car crash risk.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

Senate Committee weighs on on drunk-driving laws

“Administrative penalties—Certain social issues that are currently being addressed through criminal proceedings could be dealt with more efficiently and just as effectively through the imposition of administrative penalties in lieu of court proceedings. For instance, lower levels of impaired driving are being addressed under provincial highway safety legislation, which requires less court resources than offences under the Criminal Code. The committee recommends that the minister of justice review the merits of designating offences for appropriate social issues to be dealt with as administrative penalties in order to reserve criminal law procedures for more serious crimes and thereby reduce the strain on limited court resources.”

—Source: Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee June 2017 report on court delays

More in News

What happens if an MP’s found guilty of sexual harassment? No one’s saying

News|By Abbas Rana
All the federal political parties say they take sexual harassment “seriously,” but none will say what disciplinary action they would take against an MP found guilty of it. “We take sexual harassment allegations very seriously,…

NDP reviewing past, present harassment processes amid Stoffer, Weir allegations

The NDP isn’t currently investigating the specific harassment allegations against former NDP MP Peter Stoffer, but it says it's looking into how such complaints were, are now and will be handled, something strategist Robin Sears…

Feds’ sweeping, new environmental assessment bill keeps power in ministers’ hands, say observers

The government’s new Impact Assessment Act includes hundreds of pages detailing changes to the environmental assessment process in Canada, but keeps ultimate power over approving natural resource projects in the hands of the federal environment…

Patrick Brown gaining support since re-emerging to challenge sexual harassment allegations, says adviser, though Conservative MPs largely quiet

Patrick Brown, who in a dramatic move re-entered the Ontario leadership late Friday afternoon, is receiving strong support from all corners of the political world since publicly re-emerging to challenge the sexual harassment allegations that…

Some Liberal MPs frustrated with leadership for not sharing anti-abortion political strategy on Canada Summer Jobs program

Some Liberal MPs say they're frustrated the party leadership did not share the political strategy with the caucus on why the government was so adamant on keeping the new controversial reproductive rights clause in the…

NDP elects former Hill staffer Vick as new party president

NDP members elected a new party president on the last day of the party’s 2018 policy convention, with former Hill staffer Mathieu Vick being elevated to the role after garnering roughly 83 per cent of…

NDP delegates protest ‘watered down’ Palestine policy

In the waning hours of the NDP policy convention’s second day dozens of delegates stood in silence with hands raised holding posters proclaiming “Free Palestine” as they protested what some called a “watered down” resolution…

Galvanizing members, regaining momentum key for NDP at convention to be in fighting shape for 2019: strategists

With more than 1,800 New Democrats gathered in Ottawa to debate and help shape future party policies, NDP strategist and former national director Karl Bélanger says a top priority this weekend is to “galvanize” members…

NDP ‘shaken’ by harassment allegations, promises to root out problems in own ranks

The NDP's approach to anti-harassment was the first policy to earn mention at its convention in Ottawa on Friday—despite not being slated on the floor—with outgoing president Marit Stiles apologizing to party members who had…

WANT MORE EXCLUSIVE HILL TIMES CONTENT?

We’re offering 15% off a year-long subscription to the hill times online content.