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Drunk Drivers? Put Them Away, But Don't Take Their Truck

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This week, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it was not a disproportionate penalty for a Quebec man to be forced to give up his truck after repeat drunk driving convictions. According to the Canadian Press, the man, Alphide Manning, had argued that letting the government seize the vehicle would be too severe a punishment since the truck was Manning's only asset. But the high court's decision pointed to Manning's sorry criminal record, which included "five convictions on alcohol-related driving offences and three for breaches of probation orders or undertakings," and concluded that the forfeiture of the truck was not out of bounds.

It's an unfortunate result.

Perhaps I should explain that I don't have any particular sympathy for Manning. He has repeatedly put others in danger by mixing alcohol with driving, and has not followed the rules he was given by the court. Therefore slapping him with a severe penalty is warranted. I would not shed any tears for him over a healthy prison sentence, for example. But I do have a problem with the Crown taking his truck.

As a criminal, Manning has defaulted on his part of the citizenship bargain. The price for that is, and should be, a deprivation of the criminal's liberty -- being confined to jail or being required to fulfill certain conditions. But the price should not be being forced to enrich the government by turning over private property to it.

As dangerous as it is to treat drunk drivers too lightly, it's equally dangerous to entrench a legal precedent that offers an incentive for government prosecution in the form of a valuable prize that the government gets to keep if it wins. The last thing we want is a situation where (as the non-profit public interest law firm the Institute for Justice put it in the context of civil forfeiture) law enforcement ends up policing for profit.

The Quebec government says it wants to get tougher on repeat drunk drivers. I say, by all means.

It's possible, however, to get tougher while still staying within the bounds of what constitutes a straightforward and balanced set of penalties. Consider: incarceration and probation make the government no better off, and unlike forfeiture -- which hits the Ferrari owner far harder than the Chevy owner -- it's the same for all those convicted.

Truly, if the ultimate goal is using the criminal justice system to keep drunk drivers from getting back behind the wheel at all for a certain period of time, a custodial sentence is a lot more likely to be successful than grabbing the driver's car, anyway.

It's a fairer way to go about it too.

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