Alberta imposing steep penalties but no charges on first-time impaired drivers

Alberta imposing steep penalties but no charges on first-time impaired drivers

EDMONTON — Alberta has introduced legislation that would add hefty fines and penalties for first-time impaired drivers but would not have them face a criminal charge.

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer says the proposed change would reduce backlogs in courts and free up officers to do less paperwork and more police work.

“Officers who should be spending time patrolling streets and neighbourhoods throughout the province are spending thousands of hours sitting behind a desk dealing with administrative paperwork and spending days at a time sitting in our courthouses,” Schweitzer said Thursday prior to introducing the bill in the house.

“We also need our justice system to be more fast, efficient and effective.

“We’re offering a serious and transformational solution.”

Under the bill, first-time impaired drivers would be fined $1,000, have their cars impounded for a month and not be allowed to drive for at least three months.

They could appeal the decision to SafeRoads AB, a new branch of adjudicators to be set up under Alberta Transportation, with the entire process scheduled to take no more than 30 days.

The changes would begin this fall, and SafeRoads AB would also begin handling routine traffic tickets some time in late 2021, diverting an estimated two million such offences from the courts.

Schweitzer said serious impaired driving offences will still go through the justice system.

“You injure someone, you kill someone … criminal charges are there immediately. If you don’t change your behaviour, criminal charges are there,” he said.

He said similar rules have been in place for the past decade in British Columbia, and have reduced the rate of impaired driving incidents by 36 per cent and the number of deaths by 54 per cent.

He said the swift and severe sanctions have proven to be a more effective deterrent for first-time offenders.

Schweitzer and his predecessor, former NDP justice minister Kathleen Ganley, had taken steps to reduce legal backlogs after a 2016 Supreme Court decision set hard limits on timelines for court cases.

Both have announced hiring new prosecutors and adding more resources.

In March 2017, Ganley was criticized by the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties for introducing a so-called triage protocol for prosecutors who faced heavy caseloads and limited time and resources.

The triage protocol encouraged prosecutors to consider plea deals or abandon some minor charges to make sure there was time and resources to prosecute serious offences.

But the Wildrose labelled it a “hug-a-thug” solution.

On the campaign trail prior to last spring’s provincial election win, United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney promised to ditch the triage protocol, saying the solution lies in more resources and alternative measures, such as drug treatment courts, and that abandoning minor criminal charges “basically means letting criminals go scot-free.”

Ganley, now the NDP Opposition justice critic, said Schweitzer’s bill echoes her disparaged triage policy. But she said the bottom line is keeping people safe, and the legislation should do that.

“The evidence is clear: if properly implemented, this model can save lives,” said Ganley.

“My hope is to see strong immediate sanctions and an appeal mechanism consistent with procedural fairness and the gravity of the interests involved.”

Andrew Murie, head of MADD Canada, added, “These streamlined administrative options for certain offenders have proven very effective at reducing impaired driving and saving lives in other provinces. They will do the same in Alberta.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2020

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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