Test drivers at random to catch drunks, says committee

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Against constitution, counters lawyer

A parliamentary committee says police should do random breathalyser tests to catch more drunk drivers, a suggestion one local lawyer says moves Canada closer to being a police state.

The House of Commons’ justice and human rights committee issued its report on alcohol-impaired driving Thursday. The report makes 10 recommendations to get drunk drivers off the road, and has been sent to the justice minister for review.

Canada is backsliding when it comes to stopping drunk drivers, the committee found. About 907 people died from drunk driving in 2006, according to the report, up from a low of 815 in 2004.

The report recommends stiffer sentences for people who drive with a blood-alcohol level exceeding 0.16 and for repeat offenders.

It also recommends letting police administer random breathalyser tests. Currently, officers must have reasonable grounds to suspect a driver is drunk before performing a test. “This would serve to recognize that driving on Canadian roads is a privilege and not a right,” the committee writes.

That would be an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, argues Rory Ziv, a local defence lawyer who specializes in impaired driving cases. Random tests would clash with sections eight and nine of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which forbid arbitrary search, seizure and detention.

“This is about government trying to search citizens when it wants to,” he says. “We’re turning more and more into a police state.”

Controversial proposal

Insp. Warren Dosko of the St. Albert RCMP had not read the report, but was wary of the proposal. “Society expects that the police have cause to do stuff rather than to do it at random,” he says, and the reasonable-grounds requirement acted as an appropriate check on police power. The Supreme Court recently ruled against random searches using drug-dogs in schools, he added.

This was definitely a contentious proposal, says Brent Rathgeber, member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert. “I think there will be some long and hard study before we ever see that in legislation.”

Still, he says, the committee heard evidence that random tests would deter people from driving drunk by making it more likely they would be caught. Random tests have been credited for cutting impaired driving deaths in Ireland by 23 per cent since 2006. A Transport Canada survey found that about 66 per cent of Canadians support randomized testing.

Random tests could also be justified under section one of the Charter, the committee found, which restricts rights to reasonable limits prescribed by law in a just and free society.

Booze limit stays

The committee rejected a suggestion to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.05, or 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, despite hearing evidence that some drivers would be impaired at that level of intoxication.

“For many individuals, it’s arguable whether or not there’s any appreciable impairment at 0.03, 0.04, or 0.05,” Rathgeber says. Lowering the limit would flood an already overloaded court system with about 75,000 more cases a year, he added — more than twice the current load of 50,000.

Lower blood-alcohol levels should be left to the provinces, he says. Alberta laws let officers suspend your license for 24 hours on suspicion of impairment, for example.

Ziv disagrees. Drivers are usually significantly impaired at 0.08, he says, which some people can hit after five to six drinks. “We don’t go to the bar with [breathalysers]in our hand,” he says, and that sixth drink could easily lead to a seventh or eighth.

Keeping the limit where it is sanctions drunk driving, Ziv says. Instead, he argues, the government should drop it to zero. “That would reduce accidents and loss of life, and send the message that needs to be sent: that impaired driving is serious and we’re going to tackle it properly.”

The justice minister would study the report over the summer, Rathgeber says, and likely issue a response when Parliament resumes in the fall.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.