VANCOUVER — The number of impaired driving charges has dropped dramatically since the government introduced new penalties in September, say Vancouver criminal lawyers who handle impaired cases.
Michael Shapray estimated the number of such charges has dropped by up to 90 per cent since Sept. 20, when the new penalties kicked in.
“They’ve basically decriminalized impaired driving,” the lawyer said Wednesday.
The government has touted the new administrative penalties for impaired driving as the toughest crackdown on drunk driving in Canada, he said, but in reality few people now are being charged with impaired driving.
“It’s quite unbelievable, actually,” he added. “The government has come up with a regime to make an administrative process out of a criminal process.”
Shapray said he believes the new measures were brought in to alleviate the burden on the court system, since fewer officers are having to testify in court on impaired-driving cases.
He said the government is sidestepping the real issue of court backlogs — a shortage of judges and prosecutors.
He said his office of five lawyers usually handles up to 50 impaired cases a month, but after Sept. 20, he stopped getting calls from people facing such charges.
Shapray said the dramatic change makes it unfair for people charged with impaired driving before Sept. 20. He has filed a constitutional challenge, to be heard in Surrey Provincial Court next month, in which he argues the new measures amount to “selective prosecution.”
Another Vancouver lawyer who handles impaired driving charges agreed with Shapray’s comments.
“Almost nobody is being charged,” Brian Mickelson said. “The police are choosing not to take people in for a breathalyzer test.”
Instead, he said, police are seizing the vehicles of drivers who fail a roadside screening breath test and imposing the new administrative penalties, rather than having to do a lot of paperwork and appear in court to testify.
“What is happening now is they’re ending the investigation at the roadside,” Mickelson said.
“If you blow fail,’ that’s it.”
People suspected of being impaired are not being taken to the police station for a breathalyzer and charged criminally, he said.
Mickelson said his understanding is that police are only laying impaired driving charges if there is a serious accident or a previous record for impaired driving.
He said the new administrative penalties cost people about $4,000 if they are caught blowing in the “fail” range of a roadside test.
“It’s an extremely severe penalty for someone slightly over the limit but a huge break for someone who’s extremely drunk,” Mickelson said.
Crown counsel spokesman Neil MacKenzie confirmed there has been a decline in the number of police reports being sent to Crown counsel recommending drunk driving and failing to blow charges.
In September 2009, there were 927 reports to Crown counsel about those two offences across the province. In September this year, after the new measures were implemented mid-month, the number of reports dropped to 722.
In October 2009, there were 891 reports, compared to 530 in October 2010. And in November 2009, there were 907 reports, compared to 234 so far this month.
“It appears we’re getting fewer reports,” MacKenzie said, noting it sometimes takes weeks or longer after an offence for police to recommend charges, so some of the reports to Crown after Sept. 20 pertain to offences that occurred before then. “The further we get from Sept. 20, the less impact we’ll see from before Sept. 20,” MacKenzie said.
RCMP Cpl. Jamie Chung said police are still arresting motorists for impaired driving and demanding breath samples if drivers display gross symptoms of impairment.
The Solicitor-General Ministry said that between Sept. 20 and Nov. 14 this year, roughly 3,000 people received driving prohibitions for blowing above .05 blood-alcohol content and more than 2,600 vehicles were impounded.
Since changes to the Motor Vehicle Act became effective Sept. 20, motorists caught in the “fail” range (over 0.08 blood-alcohol content), or who refuse to provide a breath test at the roadside, face a 90-day driving ban, a $500 administrative penalty, $250 drivers licence reinstatement fee, 30-day vehicle impoundment, towing and impoundment costs, mandatory participation in the Responsible Driver Program, mandatory use of an Ignition Interlock device for one year and possible criminal charges. Motorists caught in the “warn” range (between 0.05 and 0.08 blood-alcohol content) face, if a first offence, an immediate three-day driving ban, $200 administrative penalty, $250 driver’s licence reinstatement fee, possible three-day vehicle impoundment and impoundment and storage costs.