A court ruling that took apart a portion of the province’s tough new drunk-driving law means fewer police officers will be available to run the high-profile roadblocks launched for the holiday season by Solicitor- General Shirley Bond this week.
“Can we do the same amount of enforcement or deal with the same number of drivers as we have in the past? I think the answer, obviously, is going to be no,” said West Vancouver Police Chief Peter Lepine, who is also president of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.
The B.C. Supreme Court judgment, issued Wednesday, has forced police to revert to the former law for dealing with drivers who fail a roadside sobriety test. Under the law introduced in 2010, police were equipped with a raft of immediate roadside penalties, which reduced the number of time-consuming Criminal Code cases by almost 75 per cent.
The province has vowed to amend the law to restore the penalties in the next legislative session, which begins in February. But in the meantime, police will have to devote more time to processing suspected impaired drivers.
Chief Lepine said the immediate roadside penalties took about one hour for an officer to process, while under the old provisions that are back in place, they can spend up to nine hours dealing with each case.
He said his detachment will divert more resources to the CounterAttack program, a co-ordinated campaign to boost police roadside checks throughout the month of December. But he added there still will be fewer officers on the road because they will be tied up at headquarters dealing with drivers who blow over the legal limit.
Although the immediate roadside penalties remain in force for drivers who blow in the “warn” range – with a blood alcohol content of .05 to .08 – those who blow over .08 will face a trip to the police station where they will have a chance to speak to a lawyer before taking a Breathalyzer test, a more accurate assessment of their blood-alcohol content. Police may then begin paperwork to prepare charges.
All those steps will tie police to their desks: “They are just not back on the road doing more impaired driving investigations,” Chief Lepine said. “It means in reality, our visibility out there is going be reduced.”
He emphasized that the court ruling doesn’t mean drivers can get away with impaired driving in B.C.
“If there is anybody out there who thinks this ruling gives them a licence to drive impaired, they are gravely mistaken,” he said. If a driver blows over the legal limit, “it just means we are going into a criminal investigation – that’s what we are going to do.”
Meanwhile, a lawyer for a group of up to 80 people captured by the 2010 drunk-driving penalties says his clients are considering an appeal.
Jeremy Carr says he is pleased that Mr. Justice Jon Sigurdson of B.C. Supreme Court has ruled the tough penalties and costs imposed roadside by drivers who blow over the legal blood-alcohol limit are unconstitutional.
But he says he is disappointed that the judge also found lighter penalties for people who blow between .05 and .08 in a roadside test are valid.
“On one hand, I’m very happy with it,” said Mr. Carr, a Victoria lawyer who specializes in drunk-driving cases.
“But on the other hand, we’re very disappointed. We believe very strongly we had an argument in regards to other issues that the court felt wasn’t strong enough.”
Judge Sigurdson ruled that drivers who face the toughest sanctions under the immediate roadside penalties should have an explicit opportunity to appeal the results of the roadside screening device.
Solicitor-General Bond could not be reached for comment. In a statement Thursday, she promised: “we will continue to use every responsible tool at our disposal to combat drinking and driving.”
With a report from The Canadian Press