Judge denies challenge to Alberta's drunk driving laws

A controversial Alberta law that imposes indefinite licence suspensions on accused drunk drivers has been upheld as constitutional.

In a written decision issued Friday, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Thomas Wakeling denied an application from a group of Alberta motorists to strike down a section of the Traffic Safety Amendment Act.

"The applicants have not persuaded me that their arguments are meritorious," Wakeling wrote. "Alberta's response to the substantial harm persons who drink and drive pose to society is measured, and possesses features which comply with both the substantive and procedural elements of the principles of fundamental justice."

The section in question, which came into effect July 1, 2012, dictates that any Albertan charged with impaired driving is immediately suspended from driving until their case is resolved in court - regardless of whether the case takes two months or two years.

This is a significant change from the previous standard, in which a driver could receive a 24 hour suspension, followed by a three week grace period to get their affairs in order before their licence was suspended a further 90 days.

The applicants attempted to make the case that the new law is unconstitutional in a number of respects. They characterized the legislation as a criminal law the province had no authority to create, and argued it violates sections of the Charter of Rights of Freedoms dealing with the right to life, liberty and security of person, the right to avoid unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

In other words, lawyers said, the indefinite suspensions essentially impose a punishment before a verdict is reached. As well, the law may entice innocent people to plead guilty so as to reduce the length of their licence suspension, they said.

Wakeling rejected all of the applicant's arguments, ruling that no liberties are being harmed and that no one has a constitutional right to drive. Moreover, he said the law does not infringe on an accused person's free will when deciding whether to plead guilty.

"I am satisfied that an extremely small number of persons who are charged with an alcohol related driving offence will plead guilty solely, primarily or in part because a guilty plea will reduce the amount of time they are unable to drive," he wrote in his 99 page decision.

"Whether they drove with a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit or refused to provide a breath sample and have been advised that they have or do not have a good defence would be the primary factors influencing a decision."

At various points in the ruling, Wakeling praised the law as an important deterrent "which likely has already and will in the future save the lives of Albertans."

Two of the applicants involved in the challenge were arrested for being intoxicated inside their vehicles, though both insist they weren't driving.

Shannon Prithipaul, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, who also practises law in this area, said an appeal is likely, but doesn't know when it will happen.

"It's a disappointing result. It doesn't rectify a situation that we see as quite pressing which is that there are people out there who are now subject to licence suspensions and who don't know exactly when those licence suspensions will end," said Prithipaul, noting that a person who pleads guilty can be back behind the wheel in three months compared to those who wait for trial longer than a year. Prithipaul said she had a client who was clearly not guilty, but waited two years to be acquitted without being able to drive.

Others plead guilty despite being told by their lawyer they have a case worth defending, she said.

"We have the admittedly guilty being punished much less severely than the innocent," Prithipaul said. She said losing one's licence can be devastating especially in rural areas where there is no alternate transportation to work. People may be forced to move, then lose their house and marriage.

Prithipaul said many clients also decide not to get the calibration and maintenance documents for the breath testing equipment. Even though those documents can be helpful, Prithipaul said that process automatically delays the trial by another six months.

"At the end of the day, (Justice Wakeling's) decision is basically, "Well, that's too bad," Prithipaul said. "There is a theme that this is more of an inconvenience to people more than anything else."

Alberta Justice Minister Jonathon Denis said his satisfied with the judge's ruling.

"Impaired driving is a serious issue. Alberta has some of the toughest laws in the country and I am pleased that the court has upheld our legislation," he said. "Defense counsel has the right to appeal this case and, if so, we will maintain our position."