As happens every so often, a Member of Parliament has brought a Petition to Parliament requesting stricter penalties for impaired driving offences which result in death. The one before Parliament at present is known as the Thomas Petition, after an individual who was killed by an alleged impaired driver. It isn't unheard of, and it's probably unlikely to have any impact.
Personally, I disagree with mandatory minimums for these offences. But I particularly disagree with mandatory minimums in excess of that set out for the impaired driving simpliciter offence in cases resulting in death or injury.
The mandatory minimum penalty for impaired driving is a $1000 fine and a one-year driving prohibition. In cases where there is a death, the potential exists for life imprisonment. It is rare to see cases where individuals aren't sentenced to some lengthy term of imprisonment in cases of death. I mean, sure, we all heard about the individual who received 90 days in Chilliwack. But those sentences are the exception to the rule. Remember Carol Berner? She received 30 months upon conviction. Her sentence was appealed as being disproportionate, and was upheld on appeal. The Supreme Court of Canada refused leave to appeal the conviction.
The point is that the Courts of this country take these cases seriously. There is no need, in my view, to tie the hands of judges with mandatory minimums when the sentencing process is treated with the utmost solemnity and seriousness. Nobody in the justice system takes impaired driving deaths lightly. Sentences like the one imposed in Ms. Berner's case are upheld on appeal because they are within the range of sentences given to similarly situated offenders.
Jail time does very little to "solve" the problem of impaired driving. Just look at PEI, which has an informal policy of 3-day jail sentences on first conviction for impaired driving. And yet, they have one of the highest rates of impaired driving of all the provinces. And that rate of impaired driving incidents actually increased after the policy was implemented.
The goals of the sentencing process, as set out in Section 718 of the Criminal Code are not very well-served. Sure, general deterrence may be met. But nobody who drinks and drives sets out to injure or kill people. It's a by-product of the unlawful act that is generally not punished by jail time, and so jail sentences in death cases have little to do with deterrence from what I can tell. If PEI is any example, jail doesn't keep people from drinking and driving. Maybe it's the simply fact that alcohol impairs judgment, (See also: any Vine video, ever) which means that people who choose to get behind the wheel aren't necessarily thinking about the consequences. I think it's important to keep in mind that intoxication is a defence to most criminal acts (a notable exception being, of course, impaired driving.)
And so to bind the hands of judges, who see cases similar and different, and individuals of all backgrounds, with mandatory minimum sentences for the more serious impaired driving offences is something that really strikes a blow against the interests of justice. Judges are trained and capable of considering the particular circumstances of an offender and determining the appropriate sentence based on the principles of sentencing and the offender's circumstances. I trust that Parliament recognizes that, which is why these attempts to create mandatory minimums each time have failed.
I would trust, in any event, that there would be a Constitutional challenge to such provisions, similar to the recent challenge to the minimum sentence provisions for firearms offences.
EDIT: After writing this post, I found this story about a 10-year prison term for a man convicted of impaired driving causing death. The article, I think, highlights why this sentence was much longer than the average. And that, folks, is sentencing principles at work.
I'm not sure if you've read this article, written by a former police officer. He indicates that a supervisor, sitting in the passenger seat of a vehicle and supervising a learner driver, could be charged with impaired care and control of a motor vehicle. He states: "I know, I investigated and prosecuted an impaired beginner and supervisor out of the same vehicle in the early 1980s."
Well, things may have been different in the early 1980s. I wasn't a lawyer then. I wasn't even born then. But according to the criminal law now, there doesn't appear to be any avenue by which a prosecution of a passenger could be successful, even if the passenger was supervising the driver.
Care and control is established by the prosecution in two ways. Typically, a person is observed driving the motor vehicle. So the proof is relatively easy. In other cases, however, the vehicle is not being driven but there is some course of conduct that leaves the driver in "care and control" such that there is a risk to the public. There is a presumption in the Criminal Code that any person who occupies the driver's seat of a motor vehicle does so for the purpose of setting it in motion. That presumption can be rebutted by evidence to the contrary, i.e., evidence that there was some other reason to occupy the driver's seat or that the subject did not have the means to readily set the vehicle in motion.
The recent Supreme Court of Canada decision, R. v. Boudreault 2012 SCC 56, sets out the test for care and control of a motor vehicle. There, the Court wrote:
"For the reasons that follow, I have concluded that “care or control”, within the meaning of s. 253(1) of the Criminal Code, signifies (1) an intentional course of conduct associated with a motor vehicle; (2) by a person whose ability to drive is impaired, or whose blood alcohol level exceeds the legal limit; (3) in circumstances that create a realistic risk, as opposed to a remote possibility, of danger to persons or property."
In Mr. Boudreault's case, he had fallen asleep in the driver's seat of his vehicle while waiting for a taxi. The engine was running so that he could stay warm while he waited. A taxi, apparently, never arrived. Mr. Boudreault was awakened by police who commenced an impaired driving investigation. The Court found that given the steps he had taken to ensure that he did not drive, he had rebutted the presumption.
Another leading case on the issue of care and control is The Queen v. Toews,  2 S.C.R. 119, which states that:
"acts of care or control, short of driving, are acts which involve some use of the car or its fittings and equipment, or some course of conduct associated with the vehicle which would involve a risk of putting the vehicle in motion so that it could become dangerous."
Thus, it is clear that there needs to be some course of conduct associated with the vehicle itself that creates a danger. Sitting in the passenger seat, supervising the driver, does not meet this standard. There is no realistic risk in the circumstances of a supervisor and a passenger that the vehicle will become dangerous. And there is no use of the car, its fittings, or equipment by the supervisor that could in any way constitute a danger to the public.
So I disagree with what Mr. Schewe suggests in his article. The elements of the offence just cannot be made out on those facts.
Every once in a while, some group of concerned individuals proposes the idea of random breath testing. There has been a lot of talk about the issue recently, as some members of the Conservative government are trying to propose such an idea. Additionally, the Quebec Transport Minister has recently suggested seeking authorization from the Supreme Court for random breath testing.
As far as I'm concerned, random breath testing is a significant constitutional violation. The current Immediate Roadside Prohibition system in British Columbia comes as close to random breath testing as I think will ever pass constitutional muster. Currently, police have the power to make a demand for a breath sample pursuant to the Criminal Code, but so long as the breath sample is provided, the driver has no recourse to challenge the validity of the demand. Refusing carries the same penalty as blowing a "Fail", and unlike just blowing a "Fail" on an ASD, a refusal is also a criminal offence. Which means, effectively, that police are empowered to obtain breath samples from an individual at random, and there is no recourse so long as the driver provides samples.
Worse than that is the suggestion that random breath testing at large is a reasonable proposition. It completely disregards the Charter. And while there is a significant amount of carnage caused by impaired driving incidents, that does not mean that suspected impaired drivers do not deserve Charter protection.
The only way that I can ever settle the idea of random breath testing against constitutional rights is if the results of the breath tests are used only for the immediate removal of drivers from the road for 24 hours. With no notation on the driving record, no vehicle impoundment, and no fines or penalties. Then the public safety objective achieved by the liberty and privacy intrusion does not cause any imbalance.
The difficulty with this method appears to be that it puts an end to the criminal prosecution of drivers, where random breath tests are used. There would have to be some mechanism to distinguish the impaired drivers warranting criminal investigation and prosecution from those who should only be removed from the road on the basis of a suspicion. In British Columbia, this has resulted in very few impaired driving cases being charged and prosecuted. The time and effort needed to investigate an impaired driving case criminally is much greater than the ease of the roadside system. And although IRPs were never supposed to be issued in cases where there were accidents or injuries, that has not been the realistic outcome of IRP investigations in BC, thus far.
It seems that there is really no truly viable alternative to the method established in the Criminal Code to prosecute and investigate impaired drivers. But random breath testing with punitive or criminal consequences is absolutely no way to fix any perceived defects in the system.
Vancouver Criminal Lawyer with a focus on impaired driving, marijuana legalization and related issues, and immediate roadside prohibition defence.