Drunk driving charges reduced to careless driving as COVID-19 backlog piles up

·3 min read

Editor's note: This story was first published on Oct. 7, 2020

COVID-19 has created such an unmanageable backlog of court cases that even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) agrees with a provincial policy that reduces some drunk driving cases to careless driving for fear of seeing the charges dropped altogether.

Andrew Murie, CEO of MADD Canada, said the well-known national organization would be outraged in normal circumstances, but insists there are few options during the ongoing pandemic.

Under a Supreme Court ruling known as “Jordan,” a criminal case must be heard within 18 months to guarantee the right to a fair and speedy trial.

With a massive backlog facing Crown attorneys, many cases would be thrown out for taking too long.

“We’re not prepared to have 6,000 (impaired drivers) go scot-free,” Murie said. “This is very difficult for police and MADD to stomach. This is a short term, one-time situation.”

Reducing an 80-plus or impaired driving charge to careless driving means the suspect would avoid a criminal record and be convicted under the Highway Traffic Act instead.

But the Ministry of the Attorney General’s policy only allows the option if the driver had low blood-alcohol level, was not involved in a serious collision, did not cause physical harm, was not impaired by drugs, did not have children in the vehicle and had no previous criminal or Highway Traffic Act record.

“Prosecutors retain the discretion to refuse to offer a careless driving resolution if there are other aspects of the case that make it particularly serious or aggravating,” ministry spokesperson Maher Abdurahman said in a prepared statement.

Barrie criminal lawyer David Wilcox said most suspects wouldn’t qualify under the criteria, which also excludes drivers if they had blown a “warning” during a roadside screening or refused to submit to a breathalyzer.

“That’s a lot of ifs,” he said. “There are a lot of preconditions that have to be met.”

Those who do meet the conditions still face some significant financial penalties, Wilcox added.

“There’s still some teeth to this resolution. Crowns are told that they should seek a $1,000 fine and a period of probation, including the installation of an interlock device.”

An interlock requires a driver to blow into the device to prove there is no alcohol in their system before they can start their vehicle.

Renting an interlock, having it installed and removed after probation can cost about $2,000.

Drivers who were charged with impaired driving, but pleaded down to careless driving, still face significant increases in their auto insurance premiums.

“(The insurers) will see that you were charged with 80-plus and they will determine the fee that they’ll want without any regard of if the charge was withdrawn,” Wilcox said, pointing out escaping a criminal record is probably the most significant benefit for drivers who fall under the policy.

“For a lot of people, there are real serious consequences for a criminal record of any kind.”

— With files from Jeremy Grimaldi

Rick Vanderlinde, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Barrie Advance