Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned.
It’s been about six months since changes took effect to Canada’s impaired driving laws, and already we’re seeing the exact sorts of miscarriages of justice that critics had warned about. If these abuses are no longer hypothetical and we can no longer shield ourselves behind the veneer of them being unlikely to occur, the question then becomes Canadians’ overall comfort level with these practices.
As much as we should be concerned about impaired driving, we should be and can be simultaneously concerned about the powers granted to police and how these powers are being used — or misused. Charter rights cannot be thrown aside in the fight against impaired driving or any other crime.
Moreover, though, if Canadians lose faith in the law or the law enforcement officers tasked with enforcing it, we may ultimately be doing the fight against impaired driving more harm than good.
Ultimately, it may have to fall to the courts to rein in this law and its detrimental impact on Canadians’ civil liberties. But it shouldn’t have to come to that. Rather than wait for Canadians to have to suffer an infringement of their Charter rights and then launch a constitutional challenge, the government could simply acknowledge that its law went too far and make the needed changes. Alternately, the other parties could pledge to do so if they’re elected this fall.
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Regardless of how it happens, the status quo needs to change, and change quickly.
The experience of Nanaimo, B.C., resident Lee Lowrie is an example of why change is needed. Police no longer need a reasonable suspicion of impairment or alcohol consumption before demanding a breath sample and there is now a two-hour window for police to demand someone blow into a breathalyzer. The obvious concern raised by many experts was that someone who arrives at a destination and consumes alcohol in those ensuing two hours could register a fail on the breathalyzer, even though they had not actually driven drunk.
That’s exactly what happened to Lowrie. She had been traveling to Williams Lake with her boyfriend, and the pair stopped in Maple Ridge. After having lunch at a pub — which included a cocktail each — they headed to Lowrie’s sister’s house where the three sat poolside and enjoyed some cold beers.
Strangely, Lowrie received a call from the RCMP stating they needed to talk to her about an important personal matter, so understandably she eagerly greeted the officers when they arrived — more than two hours after she herself had arrived at the house. But to her shock and horror, they were there to demand a breath sample from her, claiming they’d received a report that she’d been driving erratically.
Lowrie’s explanation about the beer she had consumed since arriving fell on deaf ears. She was forced to blow and she registered a fail. Immediately, she was handed a 90-day licence suspension and a 30-day vehicle impoundment, which left her trapped in a community where she did not live.
Even though she eventually prevailed in court, Lowrie estimates the whole ordeal cost her over $3,500 in legal fees and transportation costs. Unfortunately, the case did not collapse because of the law’s obvious Charter issues. Rather, the case fell apart because Lowrie recorded the conversation with officers and that account conflicted with the account filed in the police officers’ paperwork.
In other words, this exact scenario could happen again. And again.
Meanwhile, there is a constitutional challenge being launched by a Victoria, B.C., woman over the law’s mandatory breathalyzer provisions. Seventy-six-year-old Norma McLeod had her licence suspended and vehicle impounded after police concluded she was refusing to provide a breath sample, despite showing no signs of impairment. McLeod, though, is a mouth cancer survivor and has COPD; she physically could not blow hard enough and she had a doctor’s note to back that up. None of that mattered, however. And we’ve heard of other similar cases, too.
How many more Lee Lowries and Norma McLeods are Canadians prepared to accept before we demand that the government put a stop to this? Protecting our streets and protecting our civil liberties doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
We can and we must fix this.