The problem with random breathalyzer checks

The federal government is making noises about allowing the police to make random breathalyzer tests without cause. Now there’s an abuse just waiting to happen.

The federal justice minister is considering a new law that would allow police to conduct random breathalyzer tests on drivers, regardless of whether they suspect motorists have been drinking.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson raised the prospect recently at a meeting of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, according to MADD chief executive Andrew Murie.

If random testing were to be adopted, it would be a major change to Canada’s 40-year-old breathalyzer legislation, which stipulates that police may only administer a test if they suspect a driver has been drinking.

In June, a House of Commons parliamentary committee recommended changing the legislation to allow for random testing, arguing it is an effective deterrent.

Of course the police think it’s a fine idea.

B.C.’s chiefs want the freedom to pull over anyone, anywhere, at any time of day and ask them to take random breathalyzer tests. Currently, an officer requires cause to get a breath sample.

“The randomness of catching people who are drinking and driving is pretty key to lowering the death rate and sending a very clear message to people that break the law,” Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham told CTV News.

“If people know there are going to be officers out there — are not sure where they are — maybe the message will finally get through to those people who just don’t get it.”

If the police think it’s a good idea then obviously our opposition party leaders, Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton should be solidly behind it as well. At least that was their argument with the long gun registry: The police are in favour of it therefore we have to keep it.

We’ll see what they have to say about random police stops.

But then again, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) is all for giving police those kind of invasive powers, so it might not be a long-shot to think that I & L would go along with the idea.

Random breath testing is a roadside breath screening test to detect impaired drivers. It is used mainly at stationary checkstops where every passing driver is required to stop and give a breath sample. Drivers remain in their cars, and the process is routine, quick and causes minimal delays for sober drivers.

However that isn’t the way that the police see it working (see above).

I see the proposal as being the old slippery slope proposition. If the police can make the case that they need the ability to randomly stop citizens for drinking and driving offenses they can probably make the case for other situations.

Then there is the likelihood that some police officers will abuse that right by stopping people for reasons unrelated to drinking and driving while using the the breathalyzer test as their excuse.

An editorial in the Calgary Sun, while pointing out the possible benefits of such a law, also argues against the proposed law.

Drunk driving is a scourge. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada estimates that 1,239 people died due to impairment-related motor accidents in 2007 and a further 73,120 were injured. That’s three deaths and 200 injuries per day.

In spite of these alarming figures, we take issue with Alberta Justice Minister Alison Redford’s lock-step endorsement of federal Conservative suggestions to let police conduct random breathalyzer tests without cause, a move supported by Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson. If implemented, police would not need to determine if there is reasonable suspicion that a driver has been drinking, as is required even at Checkstops, where a driver’s actions and demeanour must be assessed before a breath sample is demanded.

Richard Rosenberg of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association properly argues that random testing would be a violation of a person’s right to protection against unreasonable search and seizure. “It has no real place in a democratic society,” he said. “Giving police power to act on a whim is not something we want in an open democratic society.”

Hopefully the federal government will rethink this foolishness.

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