Opinion: An examination into why the new drinking and driving laws are an attack on our civil liberties

By Thomas Falcone

British Columbia’s new drinking and driving laws have received a lot of media attention over the past few months. Much has been made about the detrimental effects the new laws have had on the bar and restaurant industries in B.C., and many columnists have chimed about how the new laws have affected their lifestyle choices.

Unfortunately, not enough has been said about how these laws are an abhorrent affront to our civil liberties.

Under the new laws, those with a “breathalyzer” score between 0.05 and 0.08 will be summarily found guilty and punished by the police without any due process. People who score within this range are issued an immediate three-day driving ban, $450 in penalties and fees, and their vehicles will be impounded for three-days. No judge, no trial, no jury, no innocent-before-proven guilty. There isn’t even a judicial recourse for people the police suspend on the spot. All people guilty of the unspeakable crime of enjoying a glass of wine with dinner can do is file an appeal with the superintendent of motor vehicles – a bureaucrat, not a judge.

The new laws contain other equally disturbing new regulations. It is interesting to note that a recent BC.. Supreme Court ruling has cast considerable doubt on the accuracy and reliability of the “breathalyzer” devices. Police in Australia have gone so far as to officially recognize that breathalyzers generally have a 20 per cent margin of error in their readings.

But if we dig a little deeper, we’ll find that these new laws are only the surface of a deeper problem in our society: the gradual erosion of our liberties in the name of public safety or protecting “communities.” While some recent frightening developments (such as anti-terrorism legislation, proposed ID cards etc.) have received considerable public scrutiny, there are some grossly illiberal things we have come to accept in our society without much thought.

Let’s consider the example of police roadblocks. We are bombarded with images that portray these arbitrary roadblocks as the heroic front-lines in the crusade against impaired driving, but after second consideration questions begin to emerge. Do we not enjoy a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure? On what grounds should the police be allowed to arbitrarily hassle people at random checkpoints? As former US Supreme Court Justice William Joseph Brennan wrote in his dissenting opinion in Michigan Dept. of State Police v. Sitz, “That stopping every car might make it easier to prevent drunken driving…is an insufficient justification for abandoning the requirement of individualized suspicion.”

It is most unfortunate that neo-prohibitionist organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving win the public opinion war by using sub-rational, emotional messaging and images. But the images of the nightmarish totalitarian experiences of the 20th century, all of which were inspired by the idea of promoting a certain idea about what is good in life over everything else, seem to me to be much more terrifying than a picture of a smashed car.

Maybe those who take the often unpopular position of defending liberty against the ever-present threat of tyranny should more often use vivid imagery to remind the Canadian public of the kind of horror we face if we continue to surrender our freedoms for a false sense of security.

Thomas Falcone is pursuing a double minor B.A. in political science and philosophy.

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