A justice system is a delicate thing. Keeping the balance of defendant’s rights and the public interest is a tough job with pressure that never lets up. Each case is a test of both sides’ abilities and diligence.
Recently some surprising test results came in after a drunk driving case was presented in Manitoba. It started in Winnipeg, where a man was arrested in 2009 for impaired driving. Because his blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was over the .08 limit he was convicted. The conviction failed to stand, however, after it was found that a single digit was left off a photocopy of a document given to the defence. The digit was part of the lot number of the alcohol sample that was used to test the breathalyzer that incriminated the driver.
It was an honest mistake, but the principle was what mattered: the defence is entitled to a “true copy” of a document that incriminates the client.
So there was a retrial, which should have been open-and-shut except that the arresting officer never bothered to make a new photocopy and serve it to the defence. So the judge tossed the case again, and told the prosecution not to bother.
One result of the case is that a drunk driver got off, of course. No one disputed that the breathalyzer results were incorrect, so in a perfect world the offender should have answered to his crime.
Another result of the case is that the importance of proper procedure has been understated. Some call the offender “got off on a technicality.” But the technicality is there for a reason: Canada’s justice system places the responsibility on the Crown and the police to give the accused documents pertaining to the case. In this instance it was just a digit that was left off, but it’s not hard to see how a careless attitude with regard to supplying material to the defence could lead to injustice. The judge decided to uphold the priniciple, which he rightly held to be more important than the results of a single case.
Upholding principle has its costs. There’s one more drunk driver on Manitoba’s roads than there would have been had the judge cut corners. We hope that either the driver has learned his lesson, or the police will be vigilant enough to catch him again before he does more harm. And if they do, the justice system will be ready for him.