EDITORIAL: RCMP’s new alcohol screening powers aren’t that much different, but the door is open for trouble

Any time I read the phrase “erosion of civil liberties” or “infringing on people’s rights” I can’t help but raise a Spockian eyebrow.

That type of rabble-rousing sparks my mental fire.

It’s the opportunity to feel kindled with the spirits of old social-studies textbooks, or to get mad as hell.

These emotions fuelled the reaction to Global News story last week that reported the hidden details of Bill C-46, made law last December, that police officers can now breathalyze you wherever – not just at every check-stop or roadside stop, but at your home or at a bar.

But the fact is these new rules aren’t that much different from the powers the RCMP already had.

As Bonnyville’s RCMP officer Cpl. Hillier says: “If we had a complaint that you were driving or got into an accident and we went to find you, and we found you at your house or found you at a bar, we can still investigate that and have you blow, we just need an expert to extrapolate.”

However, now that it is “no longer relevant that the person’s blood alcohol concentration may have been below 80 mg at the time of driving,” said by the Department of Justice, the new legislation creates a very slippery slope.

If you just have one drink, then drive home and have a few more pops, are you now at risk for an arrest?

Alberta RCMP Impaired Driving Specialist, Brent Robinson, forwarded some notes from the Department of Justice and National Headquarters.

One of the prime motivators in changing these laws is to eliminate the bolus drinking defense, which is used when a suspected drunk driver consumes a lot of alcohol just before getting into an accident or getting pulled over.

Between the time of a suspect’s last drink and the admission of the breathalyzer, it creates reasonable doubt whether the alcohol had been absorbed at the time of the accident.

“By changing the timeframe of the offence,” the Department of Justice notes say, “the argument that post-consumption alcohol was the cause of the high blood alcohol concentration is no longer relevant.”

Consider the eyebrow, re-raised.

But there are minor comforts here as well.

“The Alberta RCMP will only use credible evidence that the person was at or over 80 mg (i.e., to being at or over the offence level) within two hours of driving.”

That sounds somewhat reasonable.

“Individuals in their homes or in public establishments cannot be subjected to a mandatory alcohol screening demand. In these situations, a police officer needs at least a reasonable suspicion that the person is impaired and was operating a motor vehicle to make a breath demand,” the NHQ notes say.

“An example of this would be that an individual was involved in a collision, left the scene and was seen entering a home or public establishment.”

So it sounds like the RCMP still need reasonable suspicion that you were impaired and driving to unleash these new powers.

How it will be used in practice – you’re at a bar, have a drink, someone reports you to RCMP as you leave, you drive home and drink a bit more afterward, then a knock comes at the door – creates a lot more vulnerability for drivers in the eyes of the law who didn’t, in fact, break any laws.

The water is very murky, indeed.

This will likely result in a number of interesting case files for Crown prosecutors and judges in the near future, with much for defense lawyers and the average Canadian to chew on.

Erosion of civil liberties? It very well could be.

I guess in the time being, the overall message is to be careful of driving and having a drink in any amount.