The Supreme Court of Canada issued the 7-0 decision Thursday after considering the potential reasons for a judge to prevent the seizure of property used during a crime.
The ruling provides ammunition for a plan to increase vehicle seizures, announced this week by the Quebec government. Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud said it provided Quebec's 500 Crown prosecutors with a new tool to implement the plan for more seizures.
But it also takes away a Quebec man's only means of transport and his only real asset.
The justices ruled that a Quebec court was wrong to deny the forfeiture order sought by the Crown against Alphide Manning, who was arrested near Baie-Comeau in April 2010.
It was his fifth conviction for drunk driving. The previous offences occurred in 2009, 1989, 1982 and 1975. He also had three probation violations over that period.
In this latest case, he pleaded guilty to two counts of impaired driving and was sentenced to 12 months on one charge and five months on the other.
Today, Manning is back behind the wheel, his lawyer says.
While his sentence carried a five-year ban from driving, he was eligible to start again after one year if he used an ignition lock system for the remaining four.
The Crown had moved to seize the truck Manning was driving when he was arrested, considering it to be an offence-related property under the Criminal Code.
Manning argued that the loss of his beat-up old truck — listed as his only asset, worth $1,000 — would be overly harsh.
He was living in a motel in Chute-aux-Outardes, a small village on Quebec's north shore. Manning, in his 60s, remains on welfare and to this day has no other means of transport.
In an interview, Manning's lawyer said taking away the truck is an unjust punishment for a man who has already served his jail time and can't afford a new vehicle.
Lawyer Patrick Jacques says licence suspensions and ignition locks are better justice tools than vehicle confiscations.
"If you want to ensure public safety on the roads, the anti-ignition lock works," Jacques said. "Confiscating his vehicle only serves to punish him a second time and that goes against the fundamentals of justice."
Manning told the court that he needed the vehicle to get to medical appointments for both himself and his partner. He said he couldn't afford a taxi and got a friend to drive his truck for the roughly 25 kilometre trip to Baie Comeau.
The trial judge ruled that the Crown could not seize the vehicle and the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld that verdict.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, saying the trial judge erred.
"We are not satisfied that the impact of the order of forfeiture sought by the Crown was disproportionate," the decision said.
The justices said Manning's past record had to be considered.
"The trial judge erroneously emphasized Mr. Manning's personal circumstances and failed to give appropriate weight ... to Mr. Manning's criminal record, including five convictions on alcohol-related driving offences and three for breaches of probation orders or undertakings."
The Quebec government welcomed the ruling, which came just one day after it instructed prosecutors to seek vehicle seizures more often.
St-Arnaud said it was purely coincidental that his call for tougher penalties came a day before the highest court was set to rule.
He called the ruling helpful for the kind of change he's hoping to implement.
"It tells judges that what you need to do is look at, before anything else, is an accused's prior convictions," St-Arnaud said before a public event in Quebec City.
"The Supreme Court says you have to look at a person's criminal history and not at their personal situation."
The Quebec government wants offenders' vehicles seized after each infraction and confiscated for good after a third offence. The latter measure can already be applied under the law but is not done so often enough, according to St-Arnaud.
The province has prepared a number of instructions for prosecutors to toughen their stance at every step of legal proceedings involving intoxicated drivers.
Quebec wants repeat offenders to be tagged as "dangerous offenders.'' St-Arnaud is asking Ottawa to toughen the Criminal Code along those lines. The province also wants Ottawa to consider toughening prison sentences for repeat offenders.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving also welcomed the high court ruling.
"Car seizures are an important tool for those who are reluctant to make a difference between impaired driving and drinking alcohol," said Marie-Claude Morin, a spokesperson for MADD's Quebec chapter.
"We need increasing measures, up to taking their cars away, to make sure that these people are off the roads."
Morin says that British Columbia currently has the strictest drunk driving legislation in the country, introduced in 2010. It includes an immediate vehicle seizure and confiscation of a licence for someone found to be driving while impaired.
In 2012, Quebec introduced new, strict penalties for drivers age 21 and under.
Morin said MADD supports the province's measures to increase the scrutiny on repeat drunk drivers, but preventive measures are also needed.
"Our position is that we need to react before people become repeat offenders," Morin said. "So we need to be able to identify and intervene way before it gets to that point."
- with files from Fannie Olivier in Ottawa.