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‘Slap on the wrist’: Critics call on Ford government to scrap impaired driving rule

The Ford government is facing calls to rescind a pandemic-era policy that allows Crown prosecutors to downgrade impaired driving charges as part of an effort to relieve court backlogs.

As first revealed by Global News, Ontario’s attorney general issued a directive to Crown prosecutors during the height of COVID-19 that allowed them to withdraw certain impaired driving charges in exchange for a guilty plea under the Highway Traffic Act.

While the Ford government failed to track the number of times plea deals were arranged, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) estimates thousands of drivers would have avoided a criminal record as a result of the policy.

The drunk driving resolution remains in the Ontario Crown Prosecutor’s manual — the set of directives from the Ontario government to the province’s justice system. Now, the Progressive Conservatives are facing questions and criticism over the policy that some believe amounts to a “slap on the wrist.”

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Failure to Track

In December, Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Kerry Schmidt uploaded a video to social media designed to send a startling message.

“Over 10,000 impaired driving charges laid by the OPP this year alone,” Schmidt said. “Compared to (2022) we’re seeing an increase of 16 per cent of impaired driving occurrences.”

While provincial police have stepped up their enforcement of impaired driving, including administering mandatory breathalyzer tests for any traffic stop, an unknown number of their cases never made it through the criminal justice system.

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In some cases, those charged with impaired driving have been offered plea bargains that allow them to avoid a criminal record. The criminal charges laid by police at the side of the road are dropped in exchange for guilty pleas to non-criminal Highway Traffic Act violations.

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The policy came in to help clear court backlogs in 2021 and can only be used by prosecutors in situations where there are no aggravating factors, like death or injury.

Despite introducing the policy with strict guardrails over when it can be used, the Ford government failed to put the tracking systems in place to understand how often it is being used. That failure, one critic said, means the province isn’t able to assess if the policy is working.

“It probably reduces (court) time (but) how much time are you actually reducing? They can’t say. How often are people re-offending? The government can’t say. So I can’t say, none of us can say, (if) it is effective,” Ontario Liberal MPP John Fraser stressed.

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In a statement to Global News the Ministry of the Attorney General said the option to reduce charges remains in effect to prioritize more important cases.

“The policy is in place to prioritize the prosecution of serious offences like gun crimes and sexual assault and therefore reducing the likelihood that such egregious case prosecutions would be dismissed for delay,” the office said in a statement.

But Kristyn Wong-Tam, the Ontario NDP’s critic for the attorney general portfolio, questioned the government’s rationale.

“We’ve seen over 1,300 sexual assault cases in Ontario being dropped last year in terms of not getting to trial,” Wong-tam said, pointing to data obtained by the NDP.

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“(They are) reducing criminal charges when it comes to impaired driving and claiming that this is because they want the system to run efficiently. Well, it hasn’t happened.”

Calls to revoke

The Ford government’s political critics also claim the province is sending confusing signals when it comes to impaired driving.

Last week, Ontario tabled legislation to strengthen impaired driving laws to ensure first-time and repeat offenders face mandatory consequences to act as a deterrent for other impaired drivers.

“Too many families in Ontario have had their lives torn apart by the careless and shameful actions of impaired drivers,” Transportation Minister Prabmeet Sarkaria said, introducing the new measures.

“That’s why our government is introducing tough new measures, including lifetime licence suspensions, that will protect families and keep our communities safe.”

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Fraser said the fact Crown lawyers can water down some impaired driving charges weakens the idea Ontario is getting tough on drunk driving.

“If the government (is) going to come out and say this is a serious offence and we are going to increase the penalties for it, but at the same time, you might not even get there … that’s a genuine concern,” he said.

Wong-Tam believes the policy is tantamount to a “slap on the wrist” and wants to see it eliminated.

“I think the policy should be revoked because it was introduced during a COVID pandemic time,” Wong-Tam said. “Clearly we are not in that time anymore.”

The attorney general’s office said that Crown prosecutors take alcohol-impaired driving “extremely seriously.” Even those who receive the plea deal face other serious consequences, a spokesperson said.

“Besides penalties imposed upon conviction for careless driving, offenders are subject to pre- and post-conviction sanctions which include 90-day licence suspension, seven-day vehicle impoundment, $825 in administrative penalties and licence-reinstatement fees, and six demerit points,” they said.

&© 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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