Alberta’s highest court has struck down the province’s impaired driving legislation.
The law allowed the province to suspend the licence of suspected drunk drivers as soon as charges are laid and until their case was resolved in court.
It was upheld in a lower court.
However, in a split decision released Thursday, Alberta’s Court of Appeal ruled in favour of a constitutional challenge to strike down the law.
The appeal was launched by Daniel Sahaluk and others against Alberta (Transportation Safety Board), Attorney General of Alberta, and Registrar of Motor Vehicle Services.
The appeal challenged the constitutionality of the latest version of the Traffic Safety Act, which “provide[s] for the mandatory roadside suspension of the driver’s licence of any person charged with an alcohol-related driving offence under the Criminal Code… a suspension which continues in place until the disposition of that criminal charge.”
In its ruling, the court said the law imposes sanctions as soon as a criminal charge is laid, “without regard to the presumption of innocence.”
Lawyers argued that the tougher penalties would encourage innocent people to plead guilty just to get the process over with, or to shorten their licence suspension.
In the decision, Justice Frans Slatter said: “Evidence tendered before the chambers judge, who found the legislation to be constitutionally sound, included statistics that about 20 per cent of drivers who become subject to an administrative licence suspension are ultimately found not guilty of any alcohol-related driving charge, yet were prohibited from driving for significant periods of time prior to trial.”
The justice also found: “The violation of the fundamental constitutional rights of all accused drivers under SS. 7 and 11 (d) of the Charter which flow directly from the administrative licence suspension regime is clear, broad and significantly deleterious. The legislation cannot be saved under s. 1. For the reasons that follow, the appeal is allowed and s. 88.1 of the Traffic Safety Act is declared to be of no force of effect.”
Even though the court struck down the law, it will still remain in effect for one year.
“Impaired driving is still a crime. This decision today doesn’t affect the criminal law of Canada,” said Nate Whitling, the lawyer representing those who filed the appeal.
“The problem with this law is that it would persist and apply throughout the pre-trial stages of a criminal prosecution. It wasn’t for a fixed term like the old law, which was either three months or six months.”
Court delays were further exacerbating the problem, Whitling said.
“Because of the lengthy delay that occurs between the day a charge is laid and the day that it goes to trial, because of the backlog in the courts these days, it’s usually over nine months before someone can get a trial date and this licence suspension would apply the whole time, always applying pressure on the accused to plead guilty.”
He expressed frustration with the one-year delay in putting this decision into effect.
—With files from Brenton Driedger