Monday, February 02, 2004

Reality check: We've already decriminalized drunk driving
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - That was a weird little media frenzy over a government report proposing - shock and horror - decriminalizing some drunk driving offences.
How could they even think of such a thing, demanded critics. Don't they know how seriously we view impaired driving? Tougher penalties, that's what needed, said New Democrat Joy MacPhail.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman moved quickly to deny the government would decriminalize drunk driving, dousing the brief fire.
But it was all a load of rubbish.
What the reports didn't say was that we've already decriminalized almost all drunk driving. The changes proposed in the discussion paper - which was released six months ago - would have increased the real penalties and consequences of impaired driving, not reduced them.
In 2002 police in B.C. stopped about 50,000 drivers and found that they were impaired.
And 90 per cent of them faced no criminal charges. Police handed out a 24-hour roadside suspension, the driver caught a cab home and picked up his car the next day, and that was that.
And when nine out of 10 offenders who are caught by police aren't charged, we have effectively decriminalized the offence.
Which makes it bizarre that people got all worked up about a proposal that would have acknowledged the current reality and resulted in tougher penalties for most offenders.
We seize on the idea of tougher penalties and stricter enforcement as the solution to most problems in the justice system, in spite of their proven ineffectiveness in many cases. And we're happier with our fantasies than we are with reality.
In fact, the continuing push for tougher penalties is a main reason that so few people are actually charged with impaired driving.
In response to public concern and lobbying Parliament made the impaired driving penalties, especially the provisions for licence suspensions, more punitive and less flexible. The theory was that the threat of tough punishment would impaired drivers off the road.
But instead the changes made the consequence of a criminal conviction so serious that more and more people decided it was worth pleading not guilty, hiring a lawyer and going to trial. Even if they weren't successful, they would have 18 months of creeping through the process, leaving them time to prepare for a stint without a licence.
The increased chance of a trial, and the likelihood of a tough defence mounted by a lawyer specializing in impaired cases, meant police had to put more time into gathering information and making a case before charges were laid. The growing number of cases crowded the courts, with 25 per cent of provincial court trial time now taken up with impaired driving offences.
Tougher penalties meant more not guilty pleas and trials, more than the police and courts could handle. So they started using the 24-hour suspension as an alternative to laying charges. The number of impaired charges dropped, and for 90 per cent of offenders who were caught by police the offence was decriminalized. The supposed move to tougher penalties actually produced lighter consequences.
Enforcing the law would cost more than government wants to pay. If every impaired driver was charged, we'd need hundreds of extra police officers, and more prosecutors and judges.
Instead, the B.C. government was considering creating provincial offences that would carry penalties that would be tougher than a 24-hour suspension, but less severe than the Criminal Code sanctions. Fines might be lower, and licence suspensions shorter and more flexible. Judges would have the option of allowing offenders to keep driving to work, for example. The penalties would be serious, but would be eased enough that more people would plead guilty, the government hoped.
Repeat offenders or drivers in accidents could expect Criminal Code charges. But most would face lesser charges.
Despite the uproar - and Coleman's rejection of the idea - it makes sense, certainly more sense than our current approach.
Footnote: The paper proposed other changes. It suggested that people who receive two 24-hour suspensions could automatically lose their licence for 90 days, regardless of whether guilt or innocence is determined in court. That's too severe. Other changes -- mandatory education or rehab programs, already the rule in every other province -- make such obvious sense it's amazing they haven't yet been introduced here.

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