Calgary

New impaired driving rules kick in across Alberta

The UCP government has implemented legislation that changes how impaired drivers are penalized, how things are handled during roadside stops and how disputes are addressed.

Police can issue fines, impound vehicles on the spot, but first-time offenders stay out of criminal system

New impaired driving rules kick in across Alberta on Tuesday. (Submitted by RCMP)

New legislation that goes into effect in Alberta Tuesday means some impaired drivers will be slapped with stiff fines, rather than a criminal court trial.

The UCP government has implemented legislation related to Bill 21 that includes changes to how impaired drivers are penalized and how things are handled during roadside stops.

"The big takeaway is if you're a first time offender, they're not going to be putting you into the criminal justice system," said Const. Dan Kurz with the Calgary Police Service. "You'll be staying within the provincial transportation system." 

Kurz said for most first-time impaired drivers, the new rules can mean an immediate $1,000 fine, a 30-day vehicle seizure and mandatory impaired driving education, as well as existing measures such as a licence suspension.

Criminal and repeat offenders will still face potential criminal charges and other penalties under the new legislation.

"If we have cases where there's repeat offenders, if there's collisions, there's personal injury, there's minors in the vehicle, those are aggravating factors that basically say that driver is not eligible for the program," Kurz said. "And so they'll be diverted to the criminal side."

The biggest change, Kurz said, is for first-time and non-criminal offenders.

"So if you get pulled over and the officer deems you to be eligible to go into the provincial system, what will happen is you'll just get a piece of paper that has your information at the top of it, as well as a QR code," Kurz said, adding that offenders can then log into the Alberta Safe Roads system and address their file immediately, rather than waiting months to deal with it in court.

"You can set up an appointment with an adjudicator right on your phone ... you can deal with your file, you can contest the file, you can request time to pay," Kurz said. "So all of that has been taken outside the court. The courts are overworked, they're overburdened. So this is a way to divert a lot of people out of the criminal justice system." 

The province says allowing police to issue tickets on the spot and impound vehicles for up to a month is a way to administer strict penalties, while freeing up court time and police resources.

Calgary police Const. Dan Kurz says for most non-criminal, first-time impaired drivers, the new rules can mean an immediate $1,000 fine, a 30-day vehicle seizure and mandatory impaired driving education, as well as existing measures such as a licence suspension. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"Impaired driving files are very, very demanding on police resources. So even if it's just a simple impaired driving file, we've got to tie up maybe two police cars, a few different officers to do breath testing, to deal with tow trucks," Kurz said. "And then we have to deal with the offender for a number of hours, submit paperwork. And then when it comes time to court, we could spend hours in court. I've spent two days in court for a simple impaired driving file. So with this new program, we'll be able to deal with this stuff right at the roadside."

But the move has sparked concern among criminal defence lawyers like Ian Savage in Calgary, who calls the new legislation alarming. Savage specializes in impaired driving cases, and says the right to a trial is essential in a democracy.

"One would expect that you have the right to fight your case of appropriate circumstance and face your accuser. No, not under this legislation," Savage told the Calgary Eyeopener

"There's an adjudication process. The adjudicators by law are employees of the Government of Alberta. You cannot challenge your accuser so it's a bit of a farce."

Savage says the Canadian legal system is based on the presumption of innocence — and that this legislation takes away that presumption. 

"It's now a presumption of guilt and not only that, your right to contest charges is removed," Savage said. "You're not allowed to subpoena the police officer to any adjudication hearing or cross-examine them. So essentially under their noses, we have become — and I hate to use drastic language — a fascist state." 

The province says people can pay fines, request more time to pay or request a review of their case online through SafeRoads Alberta.

They can also seek judicial review in court.

"The point here is that we fought hard from the Magna Carta forward in order to have this presumption of innocence in our legal system," Savage said. "And now the government, under the cover of COVID, under the cover of saving dollars, is taking that away from us in the areas in which people would most commonly come into conflict with the law — and people are just not aware that this is going on."

Lowered stats in B.C.

Transport Minister Ric McIver says similar measures have lowered impaired driving statistics in B.C. He added that repeat offenders will not be getting away with fines.

"You won't be going home with your driver's license and you won't be going home with your vehicle, your vehicle will be seized for up to 30 days, you will get a fine up to $2,000, you'll have to go through a mandatory education program," McIvor said of repeat offenders.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has applauded the option for police to impound vehicles on the spot.

"The immediate roadside sanction program option for certain impaired driving offenders provides a way to get them off the roads quickly, while ensuring they still face strong consequences for their actions," said MADD CEO Andrew Murie in an emailed statement. 

"Most importantly, these programs save lives. Similar measures introduced in British Columbia have helped reduce alcohol-related crash deaths by 50 per cent. That is hundreds of lives saved."

With files from Dave Gilson, Emily Pasiuk and the Calgary Eyeopener

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