By Joan Bryden
OTTAWA — Conservative senators are leading the charge to water down legislation aimed at cracking down on impaired driving.
The Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee has voted to delete a provision from Bill C-46 that would authorize police to conduct random roadside breathalyzer tests, without needing to have reasonable grounds to suspect the driver may be impaired by alcohol.
The move was proposed late Wednesday by Conservative Sen. Denise Batters on the grounds that the provision is likely to violate the charter of rights and would, therefore, be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.
She won the backing of four other Conservatives senators on the committee, as well as the committee chair, Liberal independent Sen. Serge Joyal, a constitutional expert in his own right.
Five independent senators voted against deleting the provision, including Sen. Marc Gold, who is also a constitutional law expert, while one other Liberal independent abstained.
C-46 is a companion bill to government legislation to legalize recreational marijuana; however, the provision the committee voted to delete is meant to apply only to alcohol impairment.
The committee’s report on the bill, along with its recommended amendments, is expected to be debated in the Senate next week.
“We’ve had defence lawyers with lengthy careers in this field tell us that these provisions would lead to a decade of charter challenges,” Batters told the committee during clause-by-clause examination of the bill.
She argued that a “glut” of impaired driving cases has already been a major cause of delays in the criminal court system, which has resulted in some cases being dismissed. Authorizing police to conduct random, roadside breath tests would only exacerbate the problem, she contended.
“It’s our duty to provide sober second thought, particularly on these types of constitutional issues,” she said.
“I know we don’t want to see many more serious criminal charges like murder, sexual assault, serious child abuse cases dismissed because of the massive amount of charter challenges brought because of the random alcohol testing provisions in this bill.”
However, Gold said he believes the provision is justified under the charter in the interests of reducing the harm caused by drunk driving. He noted that eminent constitutional scholars support that contention, as does the government, and said it would be “irresponsible” for senators to “pick and choose among different experts in order to refuse to pass this important piece of legislation.”
“Mandatory testing will survive court challenge, though challenges there will be, as there have been every time we change the law,” Gold predicted.