Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Random tests go too far

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Police powers to check for impaired driving have encroached relentlessly upon civil liberties, such that innocent motorists are randomly, routinely pulled over and questioned, absent of cause. If an officer suspects any drinking has occurred, drivers must take a test. The penalties for refusing are equal to failing the test.

Tougher laws have helped cut impaired driving dramatically over the decades. But the charges are starting to rise again -- many factors can contribute to the trend, such as stepped-up enforcement -- and so is the pressure to hike police powers. Now the Harper government wants to eliminate the need for any suspicion of drinking, allowing police to randomly demand a roadside test.

Advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving is celebrating, saying this should make the glass of wine with dinner a thing of the past. But unless police swarmed the streets, it would not deter those who pay no heed to current penalties. The real target of MADD's campaign is the elimination of some hurdles that balance the powers police have gained to collect evidence. Many technical breaches can undo an impaired driving charge.

Those technicalities strike a balance between a social good -- getting dangerous drunks off the road -- and Charter rights. Impaired driving laws are different from other crimes in that police can demand citizens to provide evidence that they are guilty. But a rapid, roadside test, administered on suspicion, lacks the accuracy necessary to be considered admissible as evidence in court. Failure at roadside triggers a demand to take a more rigorous test at a police station, once a person has been advised of their legal rights.

Frustrated by the courts, Ottawa proposes to eliminate hurdles at the roadside, in hope that drunk drivers will get the message. Justice Minister Andrew Swan should tell the federal government the gamble comes at too high a cost. Better to spend more on aggressive public education than to relinquish the vestiges of a presumption of innocence.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2010 A12

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