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Judge grants B.C. drunk driving law brief second life

RCMP Const. Faz Majid holds a breathalyzer test showing a driver's blood-alcohol reading of .04 during a roadside check in Surrey, B.C., late Friday September 24, 2010.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled public safety temporarily trumps charter rights when it comes to provincial drunk-driving laws.

Mr. Justice Jon Sigurdson ruled earlier this month that the law around the automatic roadside prohibition, also known as the ARP, for those who blow over .08 on a screening device was unconstitutional.

But on Friday, Judge Sigurdson ruled that his declaration will be delayed until June 30, 2012.

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"Accordingly, I have concluded that an immediate declaration of invalidity of part of the ARP regime may pose a danger to the public."

George Copley, the lawyer for the provincial government, asked the judge on Dec. 19 to temporarily suspend his ruling because the law efficiently removes impaired drivers from the roads and deters repeat impaired drivers in a manner more effectively than criminal law.

The law in question allowed police to issue automatic roadside suspensions of up to 90 days for those who blew over .08. It also imposed fines and penalties of up to $4,000, something the judge ruled was too onerous without a meaningful appeal process.

Judge Sigurdson upheld the law that allows police to issue automatic roadside suspensions for those who blow in the warn range between .05 and .08.

B.C. Attorney-General Shirley Bond welcomed the decision, saying she'll introduce changes to the Motor Vehicle Act as soon as possible during the spring legislative session.

"We are appreciative that Justice Sigurdson recognized the important public safety purpose of the immediate roadside prohibition program," Ms. Bond said in a news release.

"The statistics speak for themselves. Forty-five more people are alive to enjoy the holidays this year because police stopped impaired drivers ... that's a 40-per-cent reduction in road fatalities," Ms. Bond said.

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Lawyers who successful challenged the .08 part of the law wanted it removed from the books and all the penalties imposed under it reversed.

Mr. Copley responded that supporting that decision, at a cost of about $50-million, would send the province into "financial chaos."

Judge Sigurdson said he wanted to hear full arguments on those points and ordered lawyers on both sides to come before him for further submissions.

Judge Sigurdson also said that his order of invalidity only applied to those who blew over .08 and not those who failed to blow, even though they received the same punishment.

That could potentially cut out thousands of people from any later compensation.

The government has said that more than 15,000 people were issued an ARP since the new laws were enacted in September 2010 because they blew over .08 or refused to blow. It's not clear how many of those refused to blow.

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NDP justice critic Leonard Krog said the ruling wasn't a surprise.

"Whenever you have this kind of constitutional legal issue, courts often grant time in order for the legislature or Parliament to deal with the particular issues," he said.

"And clearly the government announced its intention to deal with this again in the spring," Mr. Krog said.

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