Defence lawyers dislike decriminalization of impaired driving

by Jennifer Henderson

Two St. Albert defence lawyers disagree with proposed changes in the way people charged with impaired driving would be policed in Alberta.

St. Albert defence lawyers and duty counsellors Brad Leebody and Dave Lloyd say that the new changes give too much power to police officers and take away an accused person's access to a trial.

"The concern is the elimination of the right to a trial. We are giving police officers the power to be judge, jury and executioner on the side of the road," Leebody said.

The province is considering largely decriminalizing impaired driving with police officers using discretion on whether to criminally charge those who blow over the legal limit. First time offenders will see roadside administrations rather than battle Criminal Code charges in court.

The new system would be similar to British Columbia impaired driving laws where police officers issue fines, and suspensions rather than lay criminal charges.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada has come out in support of the changes saying it could reduce the number of drunk driving cases and would allow prosecutors to concentrate only on the most serious cases.

The proposed changes follow a decision by the Alberta Court of Appeal, which struck down sections of the Traffic Safety Act that allowed for the immediate driving suspension of anyone charged with drunk driving.

According to the court, the current suspension law violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it imposes a punishment before the right to a fair trial and ignores the presumption of innocence.

The ruling by the Court of Appeal was based on a government document that said the law was created to reduce time that drunk driving cases spent in court. Justice Frans Slatter said in his ruling that "implies inducing earlier guilty pleas, and discouraging a driver from exercising their constitutional right to a trial."

In Alberta between 12 and 16 percent of criminal charges laid by police are for impaired driving but impaired trials account for 40 percent of trial time for the Crown.

The original suspension law was created to ease the pressure on courts and reduce the amount of impaired driving charges that went to trial.

In the ruling, Slatter said that 80 percent of people charged with alcohol related offences are found guilty while 20 percent are found not guilty.

Lloyd said that there are good reasons that impaired driving cases are being brought to trial.

The defence duo said the changes would free up time in court but often with impaired driving cases there are Charter of Rights challenges and appeals. In the end charges frequently get withdrawn because of errors in the process and collection of evidence.

Leebody said that the move will help the government save money by running fewer impaired driving by alcohol trials.

"We are doing away with this because we want to save money," Leebody said.

Lloyd said that original law was struck down by the Court of Appeal because it discourages drivers from accessing their right to a trial. The duo said the proposed law will continue to take away an accused's right to a trial and they will be assumed to be automatically guilty.

St. Albert ranks in 101st place across the country for impaired driving charges with 147 incidents in 2017.