New year, new process. That is the situation in Alberta, where drunk driving is set to move from a model that primarily emphasizes criminal prosecution to one that empowers officers to make critical roadside decisions about whether to go down the court route or instead impose administrative sanctions.
These changes stem from an Alberta Court of Appeal decision last May that amended existing drunk driving laws and determined it was unconstitutional for drivers license suspensions to be tied to the verdict delivered in a court case. Given a year to put forth new legislation, the government proposed alterations that passed an initial round of vetting in November.
No firm timeline has been put in place as of yet for when these amendments can receive full approval and be put into action, but it is clear that the wheels have been put in motion towards widespread decriminalization—something that not everyone is happy about.
"Do we want a society where police officers are essentially charging, trying and convicting at the side of the road and the citizen doesn't get due process?" said Calgary defence lawyer Greg Dunn. "It's not the judge making the determination, it's not a jury making the determination, it's the police making the determination."
An easy counter-argument to Dunn's concerns is the fact that impaired driving prosecutions take up 40 per cent of trial time in Alberta's provincial courts. More importantly though, proponents of the changes believe that this sanctions-driven system will actually serve to discourage drunk driving even further.
"A lot of people will be hit pretty hard in the pocketbook, and that's a big lesson," said Karen Harrison, president of Calgary's Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) chapter.
Maybe the skeptics will be won over if these changes lead to safer roads and less encumbered courts. Or perhaps they'll be vindicated if officer empowerment proves to be a poor strategy. Either way, the answers are set to be revealed sometime in 2018.