Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Earlier this month, in the case of Sahaluk v. Alberta (Transportation Safety Board), 2017 ABCA, the Alberta Court of Appeal struck down section 88.1 of Alberta’s Traffic Safety Act which required those charged with alcohol-related offences to immediately surrender their driver’s licence to peace officers – a suspension which remained in place until the disposition of the criminal charge(s) at trial.

The provision was challenged on grounds that it violated the fundamental constitutional rights of accused drivers under ss. 7 and 11(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by inducing drivers to surrender their constitutional rights to the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial by pleading guilty to charges in the hopes of being granted permission to drive much earlier than if they waited for an acquittal at trial.

The licencing of drivers falls within provincial jurisdiction under the Traffic Safety Act and provides for driver’s licence suspensions parallel to federal suspensions for drivers found guilty of impaired driving and other alcohol-related offences under the Criminal Code. Until 1999, both provincial and federal licence suspensions arose only after the driver had been convicted of the offence in a court of law.

The Traffic Safety Act was introduced in 1999 and with it came administrative licence suspensions requiring a peace officer who laid an alcohol-related charge to seize the driver’s licence and issue a temporary licence. In 2011, the 1999 regime was replaced with an automatic licence suspension issued immediately upon charges being laid by a peace officer and remaining in force until the disposition of the criminal charge.

The result of the 2011 additions to the Act has been a chilling effect on accused drivers exercising their right to a fair trial and inducing some people to plead guilty who may have otherwise been acquitted, as the total average licence suspension has been statistically about 7 months shorter for a driver who pleads guilty and opts to have an ignition interlock device installed in order to have their licence returned.

In Canada, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the guarantee of a fair judicial process when liberty is restrained reflect back to the basic components of the rule of law and the traditions we Canadians view as essential to the administration of justice.

While the objective of removing impaired drivers from the roads is pressing and substantial and impaired driving continues to be a serious social concern, the government is still required to meet its burden of creating laws which can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

If you have any concerns or believe your constitutionally protected rights have been violated by a government official or by the improper enforcement of a law, contact DBH Law to ensure you are informed of your legal options in resolving the issue.