Here’s how you can be charged with impaired driving while not behind the wheel

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor
RCMP laid 961 impaired-related charges over the holiday season.

Here's a riddle for you. How do you get nailed for impaired driving and have your vehicle impounded if you're only the passenger?

The answer, in B.C. at least, is if the driver you're with has a learner's licence.

Peter Norman, a 64-year-old retiree in Salmon Arm, B.C., lost his car for a month and is out more than $2,000 after letting his grandson, the learner, drive his car to the store last June.

Norman, who'd been gardening with friends and drinking beer, gave the keys to his grandson and hopped in the passenger seat. On the way home, they went through an RCMP road check, which is when Norman got a big surprise.

“They pulled me out of the car and gave me a breathalyzer,” Norman told the Vancouver Sun. “I was put in the back seat of the police car. They took my licence away right there . . . then the tow truck showed up.”

Norman received a 90-day licence suspension. His car was impounded on the spot for a month. He ended up paying $1,300 in administration, towing and storage fees, plus $1,000 to participate in a mandatory responsible-driver program, the Sun reported.

[ Related: Saskatchewan woman cites rare ‘defence of necessity’ for driving under the influence ]

Norman simply couldn't understand what he'd done wrong.

“There’s something wrong with this picture,” he said. “I’ve never had an accident in over 40 years . . . If I was drinking and driving, sure — fair enough. But I wasn’t.”

Norman filed complaints with the RCMP and the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, which administers licence suspensions.

The response from the superintendent's office said essentially the fact Norman wasn't driving was beside the point. As the supervisor of a learning driver, the rules required him to be sober.

“In conducting this review I must consider the purpose of the remedial programs, which is to teach drivers to separate drinking from driving and to protect public safety," the letter said.

According to the arresting officer's report, Norman claimed he didn't know about that rule.

The Sun said the Insurance Corp. of B.C.'s online guide for new drivers and the site's frequently asked questions section make no reference to learning drivers' supervisors being under the legal limit for impairment.

Motor Vehicle Superintendent Sam MacLeod said in an statement to the Sun he could not discuss specifics of the case.

“That said, whenever someone is the qualified supervisor of an ‘L’ or ‘N’ driver, it is expected that this person not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs to help ensure they can provide any necessary assistance or advice to the relatively new driver,” he wrote.

However neither his office nor ICBC could provide an obvious location where a member of the public could find that information, the Sun said.

It does seem like a common-sense rule but perhaps it needs to be spelled out more clearly. Certainly, the penalty seems a little harsh, given that Norman wasn't driving.

[ Related: Suspected drug-impaired drivers facing unfair treatment compared to boozy counterparts ]

Criminal lawyer Paul Doroshenko told the Sun he's never heard of a case like this and speculated the officer may not have been within his rights to order Norman to submit to a breathalyzer.

“I don’t think he’s a driver,” The Vancouver lawyer said. “It’s an unlawful demand.”

We don't know if the Mountie smelled alcohol when he poked his head into Norman's car, nor whether he asked the grandson to blow.

It's too late for Norman to appeal. Under B.C. law, he had only seven days to challenge his suspension before an adjudicator.

If you live elsewhere in Canada, it's probably worth checking the rules in your province or territory before you give someone a driving lesson.

The "I wasn't driving" defence didn't work here but it's not the strangest one used to try and beat an impaired-driving charge.

A woman in Indianapolis stopped while driving down the wrong side of a downtown street claimed her tongue stud should have invalidated the breath test that put her blood-alcohol level at .11. Indiana law states that no foreign substance can be put in someone's mouth 20 minutes before the test.

The Associated Press reported that the state's Supreme Court found the stud didn't qualify as a foreign object since it was ordinarily in her mouth.

Then there was the Georgia man found not far from the scene of a car crash that left a woman injured last February. He claimed he wasn't the driver of the vehicle, found in a ditch with its engine still running and wheels spinning.

"I asked him what he was doing here and he said the aliens brought him there," the arresting officer said in his report, according to the Huffington Post.

The man was charged with driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident.