RCMP in Victoria investigate an alleged impaired driver after an F350 pickup truck crashed into a street sign that said ‘report impaired drivers’ on March 22.WEST SHORE RCMP

New Brunswick is going to increase roadside suspensions for impaired drivers, while allowing more of them to escape criminal charges, a tradeoff that officials believe will reduce injuries and deaths.

The Progressive Conservative government’s changes – based on successful reforms in British Columbia more than a decade ago and mimicked in Alberta and Manitoba – will likely improve road safety but put more discretion in the hands of police officers and raise concerns about the lack of fair and due process in the criminal justice system.

Public Safety Minister Kris Austin introduced the law amendment in the legislature earlier this week as the house resumed regular sittings.

“Impaired drivers are waiting upwards of a year or more for a court date,” he said at a Fredericton news conference on Tuesday. “And during that time, they’re back on the roads after their three-month administrative licence suspension and a minimal $50 fee. These amendments will help reduce some of the burden on our court system by providing an alternative to criminal charges that still removes dangerous drivers from the road.”

The statistics the province used to justify the reforms were telling.

More than one-quarter of the trials in New Brunswick’s criminal courts last year were for impaired driving charges, with 10 cases on average heard per week, the most of any single criminal offence. There were 950 impaired driving convictions and more than 300 short-term licence suspensions.

Accused drunk drivers are jamming up the courts, which are struggling to find time to hear serious offences, from sexual assault to murder. Following reforms in B.C. in 2011, impaired driving cases were reduced by 80 per cent in its courts. But there was also a huge increase in lives saved. According to one study, as of the end of 2019, the B.C. program helped save 522 lives and reduced alcohol-related fatalities by half.

It’s these kinds of statistics that have won the approval of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada, or MADD. Steve Sullivan, the CEO of the organization, applauded New Brunswick’s reforms.

He said the new program – called an immediate roadside suspension – would reduce death and destruction.

“I speak with people every day who have been impacted by impaired driving,” Sullivan said at the news conference after flying in from Ottawa.

“And one of the things that hurts them the most is how pointless this crime is. There is no reason for someone to drive impaired, and making a different decision might have saved their child’s life or spared someone they love the pain and trauma of life-altering injuries.

We believe, with this legislation, fewer families will have to experience that trauma.”

For most people accused of impaired driving in New Brunswick, there would be a trade-off.

Although they will likely escape having a criminal record, they won’t be able to fight a charge in court and will be subject to the whim of the province’s registrar of motor vehicles, who will examine appeals.

In certain circumstances, an individual police office could decide if a suspected impaired driver would be charged criminally or should instead face a stiff punishment that suspends driving privileges for up to 15 months.

It raises concerns that the extra power could go to a police officer’s head.

But Austin defended the idea that an individual cop would decide if someone who’s wasted at the wheel should lose their driving privileges or become a criminal.

“The police use their discretion on a daily basis, whether it’s speeding or any other thing, whether it’s a warning or fine issued,” the minister said. “Our officers are very good at enforcing the law and making those decisions daily on different offences. So this is really no different.”

Police leaders like the new measures.

Both Woodstock Police Chief Gary Forward, who’s president of the New Brunswick Association of Chiefs of Police, and RCMP Assistant Commissioner DeAnna Hill, the head of the New Brunswick Mounties, appeared at the news conference to voice their support.

“We’re looking for efficient and effective ways to make our roads safer,” Forward said, adding that police would do their utmost not to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and create what he called “bad case law.”

The discretionary power of police would also only go so far.

If a suspected impaired driver causes death, serious injury or has a person under the age of 16 as a passenger, a police officer would still be obligated to lay a criminal charge.

As it stands, drivers who fail a roadside test with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher are charged with a criminal offence and issued a three-month driving ban. However, as soon as that ban expires, they can drive again while they wait for their court date, which can take a year or longer.

If convicted, they face a $1,600 fine, mandatory participation in a re-education course, reinstatement fees, and a 12-month licence suspension and a nine-month mandatory participation in the ignition interlock program.

Under the new law, drivers who receive an immediate roadside suspension would not be criminally charged for impaired driving but would receive administrative penalties, including a 15-month suspension (a three-month absolute driving prohibition followed by a 12-month suspension of driving privileges), a 30-day vehicle impoundment, and participation in an approved impaired driver re-education program.

Drivers would pay a $1,000 administrative penalty, an increased licence reinstatement fee of $230, and the costs of the impound and re-education course.

Once those requirements were fulfilled, they would have to participate in the ignition interlock program for 12 months. These penalties would increase for each subsequent violation.

Meanwhile, police would no longer have discretion to apply administrative penalties for people who are less drunk and blow between 0.05 and just under 0.08 on a roadside screening test.

Under the reforms, it will be mandatory for cops to impose a short-term licence suspension of seven days and mandatory vehicle impoundment of three days.

But there will now be administrative penalties too, beginning at $200 for a first violation and an increase to $400 for subsequent violations within five years.

The bill is expected to receive speedy passage in the legislature as both the opposition Liberals and Greens said that at first blush, the legislation looked sound.

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 10, 2024 at 11:04

This item reprinted with permission from   The Daily Gleaner   Fredericton, New Brunswick

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