New impaired driving laws take effect in Alberta

New impaired driving laws that give police officers more roadside powers came into effect in Alberta on Monday.

Police can now suspend impaired drivers' licences during roadside stops

Alberta's provincial government enacted new impaired driving laws on Monday. (File Photo/CBC)

New impaired driving laws that give police officers more roadside powers came into effect in Alberta on Monday.

Previous legislation allowed officers to administer tickets for drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher, but now they can issue a 90-day licence suspension. An earlier law that allowed licences of impaired drivers to be suspended indefinitely was ruled unconstitutional by the Alberta Court of Appeal in May 2017.

With the new legislation, a 90-day licence suspension will be followed by a one-year ignition interlock program, in which drivers will have to pass an in-car breathalyzer test before starting their vehicles.

The law also introduces zero tolerance for cannabis for drivers with a learner or probationary licence. Once federal cannabis legislation is approved, there will be specific limits introduced for drivers with regular licences.

Transportation Minister Brian Mason said he hopes the new laws will make Alberta's roads safer.

"It provides additional tools for law enforcement and additional sanctions which I think will help to reduce the incidence of impaired driving," he said.

"And I'm very hopeful that it will reduce the incidence of serious injury and death as a result of impaired driving."

Possible decriminalization?

Beaumont resident Sheri Arsenault, whose son Bradley was killed by a drunk driver in 2011, said she doesn't have any problems with the changes introduced Monday, but fears they will lay the groundwork for Alberta to follow in the footsteps of British Columbia.

That province largely decriminalized impaired driving in 2010, with B.C. officers favouring the issuance of fines, licence suspensions and roadside towing.

Sources told CBC News that the Alberta government wants to move in that direction. Arsenault believes that could increase the number of impaired drivers on the road.

"There will be more people willing to drive impaired because the sanctions are less severe," she said. "There's no criminal record attached, and to me, that is the biggest deterrent."

Sheri Arsenault has advocated for reforms to Canada's impaired driving laws since her son died in 2011. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Edmonton lawyer Shannon Gunn Emery, who handles impaired driving cases, said decriminalizing impaired driving would be a financially motivated move that could help clear out Alberta's court system.

"If you stop charging for things, it becomes a lot less expensive. You don't need as many judges, not as many clerks, not as many Crown prosecutors, not as much court time," she said.

"The officers who would normally spend two or three hours doing an impaired driving investigation now only have to spend 20 minutes for each one. And every one of those they're going to have fines ... and that's just going to fill up the coffers, so it's a win-win for the government."

But Emery said the possibility of implementing B.C.-style legislation wouldn't be a win for drivers.

Lawyer Shannon Gunn Emery says decriminalizing impaired driving would help clear out the overloaded court system. (Sam Martin/CBC)

"That causes me some concern about how much discretion we're giving to officers who are then not only investigating at the roadside, but they're deciding to basically convict, for all intents and purposes, and sentence, right then and there," she said.

The last thing that we want is our police to become the judge, jury and executioner of any crime.- Sheri Arsenault

"You have all the stigma and all the negative consequences of a criminal conviction without any of the procedural protections that are in place that are there under the criminal code."

And Arsenault agrees.

"The last thing that we want is our police to become the judge, jury and executioner of any crime. If it's written in the law in the criminal code that over 0.08 is a criminal offence, there should be no grey area for the police," she said.

But Mason said decriminalization is not the focus of the new legislation.

"Clearing the court system is a worthy objective, but it is not being done at the expense of decriminalizing impaired driving, whether it's cannabis or alcohol," he said.

"It's important to note that the roadside suspension because it's immediate and it's serious — although it doesn't result in a criminal record — actually gets very high levels of compliance where it's been implemented in other places."