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Should impaired driving be decriminalized?

Sault Police Chief looking at report on proposed new Alberta drunk driving laws ‘with keen interest;’ also, training for Sault officers to spot marijuana impairment in motorists to get underway
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Sault Ste. Marie Police Service Chief Robert Keetch says he is interested in news from British Columbia which shows the reported  number of impaired driving cases is down after impaired driving has been largely decriminalized in that part of the country.

Now, Alberta is set to make similar changes this year that would see apprehended drunk drivers slapped with fines, their vehicles towed away and licenses suspended for three months, but not criminally charged (unless, of course, an impaired driving incident causes death or injury). 

“Impaired driving’s been around for the 36 years I’ve been in policing, and any new program that potentially reduces the number of impaired driving incidents, I think, is positive, and I’ve looked at the numbers in British Columbia and they’re reporting a positive outcome,” said Keetch, speaking to SooToday Thursday.

“I would support any program that reduces the number of impaired incidents on our roadways.” 

Keetch said he has noted impaired driving has been statistically on the decrease in British Columbia since changes were made to the system in that province in 2010 and is “very intrigued” by the fact Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is supporting the proposed changes in Alberta.

“For them to be supporting it speaks volumes and should open us to potentially consider it as well.”

“Obviously they’ve been aware of the program and have done an analysis as well, and come to the similar conclusion made by police that the program has reduced the number of impaired incidents on the roadways.”

Keetch said the Ontario government “is aware of it and potentially considering it.”

“At the end of the day people other than I will make a determination, through the government, whether there is value in this program and whether it’s implemented in Ontario, and if it is, to monitor the impact of that and if we are reducing the number of impaired drivers on the roadway.” 

“I think the courts are looking for ways to eliminate workload so the proper cases that require to be heard before the court are heard before the court in a timely fashion, and British Columbia is identifying that’s one of the outcomes of the change they’ve done, a reduced number of impaired driving trials and freed up court time,” Keetch said.

“Our courts are clogged with criminal matters, many of which don’t lead to criminal convictions,” Keetch said, drawing attention to the fact many criminal cases nationwide have been tossed out of court because of long delays in the judicial process since the Supreme Court of Canada's landmark Jordan decision.

The Jordan decision was handed down July 8, 2016, when the Supreme Court ruled the drug convictions in British Columbia of Barrett Richard Jordan must be tossed out due to unreasonable delay (those unreasonable delays now considered as being more than 18 months in provincial court or more than 30 months in superior court).

Keetch said it’s open to debate whether having one’s name not appear in the media (as a result of not being criminally charged, but rather slapped with fines and other measures) will worsen the problem, but noted losing one’s license for 90 days “has a significant impact on people.”

“Our focus with regard to this issue of impaired driving is what can we do as a society to decrease the number of individuals that make that conscious decision to consume alcohol and then get behind the wheel of a car, because there’s that potential of tragic consequences every time an individual makes that decision.”

On another impairment-related topic, Keetch said training will be underway for Sault Ste. Marie Police Service officers to recognize signs of impairment from marijuana in motorists as the federal government prepares to legalize the substance this summer.

There are two training modules available to officers, one being training in Standard Field Sobriety Testing (SFST), which will enable front line officers to spot marijuana impairment, along with drug recognition expert training.

The province has announced it will provide additional courses in SFST training.

“We’re trying to coordinate several officers to attend that training,” Keetch said.

Drug recognition expert training enables officers to provide opinion evidence in court, but is “very difficult to get…and very expensive,” Keetch said, the training available only in Florida, and only two Sault police officers currently have that training.

Police are currently looking at various devices to detect marijuana impairment in motorists, including tests which involve collecting saliva samples, the final decision on which device to use to be made by the provincial government.