EDMONTON—Advocates and defence lawyers are growing worried as the Alberta government looks at largely decriminalizing drunk driving in the province, a surprising reversal in the United Conservative Party’s original stance on the issue.
The reverse in policy for the United Conservatives, who blasted the NDP government for considering a similar change in the laws when they were the Opposition in 2018, concerns anti-drunk driving advocate Sheri Arsenault.
During a meeting with Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer last week, Arsenault urged him not to proceed with decriminalization and an administrative penalty system. She says Schweitzer told her all options were being considered, including decriminalization, due to a backlog of cases tied up in the courts.
Another source familiar with policies being considered within the justice ministry confirmed to the Star that decriminalization hadn’t been ruled out.
Arsenault’s son, Bradley, along with two of his friends, died in a collision with a drunk driver in Alberta in 2011. She’s been advocating for tougher impaired driving laws at the federal and provincial levels ever since. Arsenault believes the potential for criminal charges is the best deterrent for people getting behind the wheel after drinking.
“I’m hoping this government doesn’t go through with something as ludicrous as decriminalizing impaired driving,” Arsenault said. “But (Schweitzer) says he’s looking at all options right now.”
A spokesperson for the department of justice said they were looking at “a variety” of options but that “no final decisions have been made.”
In 2010, British Columbia moved to largely decriminalize drunk driving and Manitoba has also adopted a similar approach. It’s a policy option Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has supported, as the organization has said it means stronger prevention and fewer cases weighing down the courts.
Police officers in B.C. have discretion to lay criminal charges or administer sanctions on the side of the road under provincial rules. Largely, the shift meant first time offenders were off the hook for criminal charges, clearing up space in the courts and promoting rehabilitation, said MADD Canada CEO Andrew Murie.
“(Police) can have an option, in certain circumstances, one time only, to take a person through an administrative system, which focuses largely on sanctions and rehabilitation versus the justice system, which just solely focuses on punishment,” he said.
Murie said B.C. has seen a 50 per cent decrease in alcohol related deaths since it adopted the new policy.
“They’ve had nine years of saving lives,” he said.
It’s part of a national downward trend. According to Statistics Canada, there were just over 72,000 police-reported impaired driving incidents in 2015. That’s the lowest number of impaired driving incidents since they started collecting data in 1986.
Since B.C. and Manitoba have made the changes, Murie said other provinces might be looking to follow suit as well.
“It allows you to keep the criminal system to deal with the repeat offenders and those people like obviously, if they’re in a crash where somebody is hurt or killed, or a child’s involved, then they’re not eligible,” he said. “That’s a small percentage, but largely you’re redirecting maybe as high as 70 per cent from a court system into an administrative system.”
In 2018, the former NDP government in Alberta was considering moving to an administrative sanction system like B.C.’s as well, but it never came to fruition.
At the time, Arsenault met with UCP MLA Mike Ellis, who served as justice critic in Opposition in 2018, and Arsenault says he was “outraged at the mere thought” of decriminalizing it.
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“They’re the tough on crime party, or so I was told,” she said. “When they were voted in, I honestly took the first sigh of relief in a long time. I’ll never have to worry about impaired driving being decriminalized in Alberta again.”
Ellis didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs is considered an offence under Canada’s Criminal Code, but provinces can largely decide how to penalize those caught doing it.
Last week’s speech from the throne, delivered by Alberta Lt.-Gov. Lois Mitchell, alluded to what’s in store from the United Conservatives, stating: “My government will table bills to toughen sanctions against impaired driving.”
But Greg Dunn, a criminal defence lawyer in Calgary who represents people charged with impaired driving, agrees with Arsenault’s philosophy that the possibility of a criminal record is the best prevention and says that a criminal charge also gives people a chance to defend themselves.
“When you are charged criminally, you have protections under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he said. “You’re entitled to the presumption of innocence. Under administrative law, you have neither of those protections.”
As it stands, a person caught driving impaired is given a 90-day licence suspension, followed by one year of an ignition interlock program, which would require the driver to blow into a breathalyzer before starting the vehicle. Parallel to that is a criminal charge where, if someone is convicted, they could also receive a $1,500 fine.
An administrative law system like British Columbia’s could mean having your vehicle seized, impound fees, safe driving courses that cost money, and licence reinstatement fees, said Dunn, adding that police officers also become “judge, jury and executioner” when doling out sanctions on the side of the road.
All of that could mean paying upwards of $5,000, he said.
“People that are on the lower end of the scale financially just can’t afford it,” said Dunn. “They can’t afford to fight it, and they can’t afford to pay the fees. So it becomes essentially a massive money grab that hurts the poorest in society the most.”
With files from Alex Boyd