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Legal fallout from B.C.'s tough drunk-driving penalties continues

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

Thousands of British Columbians are looking for compensation after they were ensnared in new drunk driving laws that a judge has concluded were unconstitutional.

But whether they get anything will depend on what the judge decides next and a lawyer representing many of them says the stakes are incredibly high.

"I have a number of clients that lost their job because of this," Victoria lawyer Jeremy Carr said.

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"What's the government going to do for people who have lost everything? So they've lost their jobs, some people have lost their home."

Lawyers on both sides of the drunk driving dispute are back in court Monday to present their opinions to the judge who ruled B.C.'s year-old law for those who blew over .08 violated search and seizure protections.

Mr. Carr said he represents at least 80 people who blew over .08 in a roadside blood-alcohol test and had a number of penalties and fines imposed without ever being charged.

The provincial government has said more than 15,000 people failed the roadside screening test or refused to take it.

But in a decision released earlier this month, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jon Sigurdson said the new law went too far by allowing automatic driving suspensions of up to 90 days, the impounding of vehicles, and the imposition of thousands of dollars in costs.

Justice Sigurdson requested in his ruling that lawyers appear before him as soon as possible to make submissions on the appropriate solution for those whose penalties were declared unconstitutional.

Mr. Carr said he doesn't know what the Crown's argument will be on Monday, but he said drivers who ran afoul of the law may end up with nothing.

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Instead, they may be forced to file lawsuits in small claims court or start a class-action lawsuit, not only to recover the costs, but also for damages.

"I don't know if they'd be successful in suing for that money back, because there is precedent in the past where there's been changes to rules or legislation and the government has not had to pay things back," Mr. Carr said.

Depending on the remedy provided by Justice Sigurdson, Carr said thousands could be filing lawsuits

The provincial government boasted in November that with Canada's toughest roadside impaired driving penalties, B.C. had reduced alcohol-related motor vehicle deaths by 40 per cent.

Police impounded more than 20,000 vehicles during that period for both drivers who failed, and those whose breath sample registered between .05 and .08.

B.C.'s law was criticized by Justice Sigurdson because he concluded drivers who blew over .08 had no recourse to a meaningful appeal process.

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Last week, Alberta introduced its own controversial law to crack down on drunk driving by revoking a driver's licence once charges are laid.

Critics say that could effectively force someone to live without a driver's licence for months or years before guilt or innocence is even determined.

While Justice Sigurdson struck down the laws for those whose blood-alcohol limit was over .08, he upheld most of the law and rejected arguments that the province was infringing on federal ground by enacting it.

He also upheld the penalties for those who blow between .05 and .08.

Mr. Carr said he doubted the judge will issue a blanket ruling for those who were caught up in the constitutional case.

And he said the decision on whether to remove the failed road test from a person's driving record may be left up to the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles.

"What I'd like to see is that the superintendent says that if you have a fail we will take that off your record."

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