OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed British Columbia's tough drunk-driving law, which imposes heavy fines, penalties and immediate roadside suspensions.
The high court handed down a pair of judgments Friday, a 6-1 decision and a unanimous 7-0 ruling, that uphold key portions of the law.
It ruled the province had the jurisdiction to enact the law in 2010 and that it did not violate the charter protection of the presumption of innocence.
However, a majority of the court said the law violated the charter protection against unlawful search and seizure.
In 2012, B.C. amended the law to deal with that issue, allowing drivers who failed a roadside breath test to ask for a second test and apply for a review of their driving prohibition.
The Supreme Court ruling Friday deals only with the law as it stood in 2010.
Justice Andromache Karakatsanis, writing for the majority, said the roadside screening scheme was "valid provincial legislation'' and the presumption of innocence protection was not at play because "the provincial regime does not create an 'offence.'''
However, Karakatsanis upheld the original trial judge's finding that the law "as it was constituted from September 2010 to June 2012'' violated the charter provisions against unreasonable search and seizure.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin dissented on that point, saying there was nothing "constitutionally unreasonable'' about the search provisions of the original law.
"The state's purpose — to prevent death and serious injury on the highway from impaired driving — is important and capable of justifying intrusion into the private sphere of the individual's bodily substances.''
The province amended the law in 2012 to deal to deal with that issue.
British Columbia's justice minister said Friday that the immediate roadside prohibition law has saved 260 lives since September 2010 and lauded the top court's decision.
"It's a very significant law for us. It's the toughest in the country and it's very effective. It's keeping our highways safe and it's keeping families from losing loved ones due to drinking drivers,'' Suzanne Anton said.
She added that the amended law the province introduced in 2012 deals with the fairness issue that the Supreme Court raised.
"I'm confident that the law as it's currently written satisfies the concerns that they expressed about the older version of the law in the case that came out today.''
Drivers in the case had the support of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which argued that their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty was violated by the imposition of automatic penalties.
In the first case, Lee Wilson of Kamloops, B.C., was pulled over in 2012 and the two breath samples he provided registered in the warning range, resulting in a three-day driving suspension.
Wilson said the breathalyzer samples alone were not enough to warrant the suspension and impounding of his vehicle, arguing the officer had no evidence showing that his ability to drive was affected by alcohol.
He took the case to B.C. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favour, but the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the decision.
The second case involved James Goodwin and four other drivers who either refused to give a breath sample or registered a fail on a roadside screening device.
The plaintiffs challenged B.C.'s automatic roadside prohibitions on constitutional grounds for drivers who blow over .08 on a screening device.
The cost for drivers issued a suspension for blowing over the legal limit has also come under fire, with a B.C. Supreme Court judge noting it can amount to $4,000.
Another intervener, Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada, supported B.C.'s law, saying it "falls squarely within the province's legislative competence.''
B.C.'s law is "extremely innovative'' and other provinces have been keeping a close eye on the Supreme Court decision, Anton said.
"They're watching us and there's no question that they will start to follow what we've been doing because they see how important it is to the safety of our roads in British Columbia, how those tough laws and tough penalties keep our roads safe in British Columbia.''
— with files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver
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