British Columbia

B.C. drunk driving roadside test laws change

The B.C. government has introduced new driving laws that it says will be fairer for drivers accused of being impaired.

Government says system will be fairer as drivers' rights enhanced

The B.C. government has introduced new driving laws that it says will enhance fairness for drivers accused of being impaired and increase public confidence.

But critics are unsure the proposed changes will stand up in court and say the earlier bad laws could cost the government millions of dollars in refunds.

The changes come after a B.C. Supreme Court judge struck down the law last November that allowed police to issue an immediate roadside suspension to those who blew over .08.

Under the old law, drivers who registered a fail, or a blood-alcohol reading of over .08, on a roadside screening device, were given automatic 90-day driving suspensions. They also received monetary penalties, were forced to take mandatory programs and had to have an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle for one year.

Those who blew in the warn range — between .05 and .08 — were issued an automatic three-day suspension for a first-time, and suspensions of seven and 30 days for repeat offenders.

The law was declared invalid last November when Justice Jon Sigurdson concluded it was unconstitutional because drivers were not given a reasonable chance to defend themselves in the face of significant penalties and hardship.

Sigurdson gave the government six months to fix the prohibitions, penalty and costs for those who blew over the legal limit.

Attorney General Shirley Bond said Thursday the changes meet and exceed the court's requirement.

"In fact, we believe these amendments will provide a more expansive and appropriate appeal process and we believe we've met the test of the courts."

The changes expand the grounds for appeal, make it mandatory for police to tell drivers they can challenge the first roadside test, require the lowest of two tests to prevail and require police to submit documents about the calibration of the roadside breathalyzer.

If passed, the law will apply to cases involving drivers who blow in the failure and warning ranges of the roadside test devices.

The government has maintained the drunk driving laws — enacted in late 2010 — have saved dozens of lives in B.C.

Bond said the changes to the law do not weaken it.

"We want to be fair. I think that's what I believe it is."

15,000 penalized under old law

But at least 15,000 people were fined and penalized for blowing over .08 while the law was in place, paying about $4,500 each in fines and fees.

Bond avoided the question of paying back those whose penalties were declared illegal when she spoke to reporters about the legislation.

After Sigurdson struck down the law, lawyers asked that those caught up be reimbursed. Simple math puts the dollar figure at $70 million.

Sigurdson said in December that he wanted to hear more argument on the issue from lawyers later.

"Charter remedies and whether certain monies are recoverable by the petitions in this case are complicated matters," he said in his ruling.

Lawyer Paul Doroshenko, who has several clients who lost their drivers licenses and paid thousands in fees, said the court has ruled the automatic suspensions are unlawful and the government needs to pay that money back.

Instead of going to court, they're going back to the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles and appealing, he said.

"If you're [cleared] on a review, you get your money back, right?"

New Democrat justice critic Leonard Krog said the government was warned even before the first legislation passed that it was on shaky constitutional ground.

"Whether or not this will satisfy the courts remains to be seen," he said of the proposed changes.

"There is no question that all British Columbians want to ensure that drunk drivers are kept off the road."

While Krog said the legislation is a step forward, he's not sure it will satisfy the courts.

He said those caught up in the unconstitutional law feel the situation has been poorly handled.

"Whether or not they'll be in a position to challenge on this? Interesting questions. Its too early to comment."