BRITISH COLUMBIA

B.C. Drunk-Driving Laws Upheld By Appeal Court

03/03/2014 01:07 EST | Updated 05/03/2014 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - The British Columbia Appeal Court has refused to water down the province's tough drunk-driving laws that allow for heavy fines, penalties and immediate roadside suspensions.

The unanimous decision by the three-judge panel ends a four-year debate over rules that the government says saves lives, but are condemned by civil liberties advocates as unconstitutional.

The appeal court case involves six motorists who challenged their immediate 90-day roadside prohibitions after either blowing a "fail" or refusing to provide a breath sample.

B.C. Civil Liberties Association, an intervener in the case, argued that the drivers should have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, instead of being given automatic penalties.

But in the ruling released Monday, B.C. Appeal Court Justice Catherine Anne Ryan agreed with a lower court that the impaired driving laws do not concern criminal matters, so the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty doesn't apply.

"The legislation does not supplant the Criminal Code, its purpose and effect is to regulate highways and enhance public safety," Ryan said in a written decision.

The legislation, introduced in 2010, allows police to issue driving prohibitions for up to 90 days for people who fail a roadside screening test or who refuse to take the test.

Impaired drivers may also have to pay fines of up to $500 and cover the costs of vehicle impoundment and storage, taking a remedial driving program, and the installation of an ignition interlock program.

Ryan agreed with a 2011 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that said the laws don't lead to true penal consequences.

In that decision, Justice Jon Sigurdson said a driving prohibition is the removal of a privilege aimed at preventing future harm, rather than at addressing a wrong to society. Therefore, it is not criminal in nature and does not infringe on a person's right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, Sigurdson said.

Monday's court decision also upheld the 2011 ruling that found the law initially infringed upon people's rights because it did not provide an adequate way for drivers to challenge the roadside breath test.

The B.C. government amended the law in 2012 so drivers who fail a roadside breath test can ask for a second test, and can apply for a review of their driving prohibition.

B.C. Civil Liberties Association lawyer Raji Mangat said the review process still doesn't go far enough to protect people's rights.

"In our view, there is a very limited breadth to what you can challenge, and so it will remain to be seen whether the government will go back to the drawing board in respect to at least making the administrative challenge mechanism more robust," Mangat told reporters outside the court.

Mangat said her organization was disappointed with Monday's ruling.

"In kind of an ironic way, you almost rather wished that you were charged under the criminal law, perhaps, because you'd have the presumption of innocence and that sort of thing," she said.

B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton said last week that the impaired driving law has saved 190 lives since it was introduced.

Anton said Monday's ruling confirms the province is entitled to make public safety rules to save lives.

"This answers one set of questions, there are others that people are raising in the courts so we'll just wait and see how those ones play out," she said.

"But at the moment, the Court of Appeal has confirmed that we will be carrying on in the way that we are administering and running the program right now."

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