Police conducting a roadside check for impaired drivers.

Court reprieve restores full arsenal of roadside penalties against drunks

Follow-up ruling gives province six months to revise impaired driving punishments to comply with law

The courts have temporarily restored the power of police officers to issue stiff 90-day suspensions to impaired drivers caught with a blood-alcohol level over 0.08.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jon Sigurdson, who previously struck down that part of the roadside penalty system, issued a follow-up ruling Friday that suspends the implementation of his decision until June 30.

That effectively gives the provincial government six months to pass new legislation to ensure the roadside penalties and process to appeal them comply with the law.

Justice Sigurdson noted the government considers the automatic roadside penalties more effective than criminal prosecutions in fighting impaired driving.

“I have concluded that an immediate declaration of invalidity of part of the (administrative penalty) regime may pose a danger to the public,” he found.

Sigurdson’s original Nov. 30 ruling fanned fears that police powers to battle impaired drivers would be seriously eroded just as the holiday CounterAttack campaign was getting underway.

For three weeks since the Nov. 30 judgment, police had been unable to issue the 90-day suspensions and related penalties and fees that add up to $3,750 for drivers who blow in the “fail” range over 0.08.

Instead, officers at roadblocks faced a choice: arrest the driver and proceed with a time-consuming criminal impaired investigation or else issue only a 24-hour suspension.

A roadblock that caught two impaired drivers would lose its investigating officers to the criminal procedure and might have to halt enforcement early that night as a result.

For roadside readings of 0.08 per cent or higher, police had previously been imposing a 90-day driving ban, a $500 fine and impounding the vehicle for 30 days. That suspension can cost a driver $3,750, including $700 for towing and storage and $1,420 to take a mandatory “responsible driver” course.

To comply with the court rulings, the province must ensure those drivers get a chance to challenge the decision.

“We will work to introduce changes to the Motor Vehicle Act as soon as possible in the spring legislative session,” Solicitor General Shirley Bond said in a statement Friday. “We continue to analyze Justice Sigurdson’s comprehensive decision to determine what those changes will consist of.”

Justice Sigurdson also found 90-day suspensions are constitutional for drivers who refuse to provide a breath sample upon request.

He also upheld the use of the immediate roadside prohibitions for drivers who blow in the “warn” range between 0.05 and 0.08.

Bond noted the roadside penalties resulted in a 40 per cent drop in alcohol-related deaths in the first year.

“The statistics speak for themselves,” she said. “Forty-five more people are alive to enjoy the holidays this year because police stopped impaired drivers, people who would not be with their families today without this legislation.

“We are not going to give up our fight to remove impaired drivers from B.C.’s roads, and we will continue to use every responsible tool at our disposal to combat drinking and driving,” Bond said.

“We want the public to know police will be out in full force over Christmas as part of their CounterAttack program to protect the public from people who are drinking and driving.”

Sigurdson has yet to rule on whether B.C. drivers who were punished without sufficient right to appeal are entitled to compensation.