Four motorists recently challenged a law in Alberta that involves a controversial and long-misunderstood practice: automatic licence suspension for DUI.
The law states that anyone arrested for driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 or more – the Canadian standard for legal drunkenness – will have his or her licence suspended immediately. This occurs before conviction, and indeed, before trial.
Moreover, the suspension is indefinite, lasting until the matter is dealt with in court.
Is this allowable under constitutional law? A Court of Queen’s Bench justice says yes.
The motorists’ objections were understandable: upon arrest, drivers are presumed guilty and are punished automatically. This would appear to go against Canada’s constitution, under which defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and are guaranteed a trial.
However, as the judge noted, driving is not a constitutionally protected right. Not just in Canada but all over the world it is deemed a privilege. To apply for a driver’s licence is to agree to drive unimpaired. By failing a breath test, a driver forfeits the privilege.
This is not the first such challenge. A similar effort to have British Columbia’s administrative suspension laws changed was defeated in 2011.
One of the issues is the inconvenience of not being able to drive during the suspension period, which can last months, particularly if the defendant does not plead guilty.
One solution would be to have all drivers under administrative suspension be required to install an ignition interlock at their own expense. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. With the interlock, authorities could be assured that the offender would not drink and drive. After the trial, the interlock could either be removed or kept for additional time, depending on the verdict.
The idea of administrative suspension takes some getting used to, partly because driving is such a large part of our lives that we tend to forget that it is a privilege. But a privilege it is, and one that can easily be lost if one makes the bad decision to drink and drive.