For those who practice impaired driving and 80 plus law, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) recently rendered two decisions of interest.

1. v. McColman, 2023 SCC 8

On March 23, 2023 they decided an appeal from the Court of Appeal for Ontario, which dealt with whether a sobriety test under section 48 of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act could be conducted on private property.

In the case of R. v. McColman, the Ontario Provincial Police had spotted the accused driving an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) out of a convenience store parking lot onto a highway. The officers followed the ATV and caught up to Mr. McColman about a minute later, when he had pulled onto the private driveway of his parents' home. The officers approached Mr. McColman in the driveway and observed obvious signs of impairment. The officers arrested him for impaired driving and brought him to the police station, where he did two breathalyzer tests. Mr. McColman was then charged with impaired driving and operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit.

Key evidence at the trial was the testimony of one of the officers that they did not see any signs of impairment before stopping Mr. McColman. The officer explained that they stopped the accused while they were exercising their authority to conduct random sobriety checks under section 48(1) of Ontario's Highway Traffic Act (HTA). This section gives the police the authority to randomly stop a motor vehicle and check if the driver is sober. The trial Judge convicted Mr. McColman of driving with excess blood alcohol.

Mr. McColman appealed the trial decision. He argued the sobriety stop was illegal under section 48(1) of the HTA because it was conducted on private property. Mr. McColman's appeal eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The SCC agreed with the argument of Mr. McColman and held that the officers did not have the authority under section 48(1) of the HTA to conduct the random sobriety stop in the private driveway. In their opinion, the HTA defined a "driver" as someone who drives or has care or control of a vehicle on a highway. A highway is defined as a "common and public highway, street, avenue that is intended for or used by the general public". They said Mr. McColman was not a driver for the purpose of section 48(1) because he was not on a highway when the police made the stop. As such, the stop was unlawful, resulting in the arbitrary detention of Mr. McColman and the violation of his section 9 Charter rights.

The success of this appeal argument was likely of little comfort to the accused. In the end, the SCC ruled that despite the breach of Mr. McColman's section 9 rights under the Charter, the breathalyzer results obtained from the unlawful stop were still admissible under section 24 (2) of the Charter. In determining whether to exclude the evidence, the Court felt that due to the nature and importance of the evidence, as well as the seriousness of the offence, admitting the evidence was warranted despite the Charter breach. As a result the conviction of Mr. McColman was upheld.

2. v. Breault, 2023 SCC 9

In the second case arising out of Quebec, the SCC ruled on whether a police demand to provide a sample into an Approved Screening Device (ASD) was valid when police did not have the device with them at the time of the demand.

In the Breault case the police had stopped the accused after reports that someone was driving an all-terrain vehicle while drunk. The officers wanted to take a breath sample from Mr. Breault, but they did not have an ASD on hand. They radioed nearby officers to obtain a device. While still waiting for the device, the officers demanded that Mr. Breault provide a breath sample and Mr. Breault refused three times to provide a sample. Mr. Breault was then charged with refusing to comply with a demand by police to provide a breath sample.

In their April 13, 2023 decision, the SCC determined that such a demand was invalid as it was not in compliance with the provision in the Criminal Code that such a sample be provided "forthwith". As outlined in the case brief from the Supreme Court,

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Suzanne Côté ruled that the validity of a demand to provide a breath sample requires that police have immediate access to an ASD at the time the demand is made. According to Justice Côté, the word "forthwith" in section 254(2)(b) must, as a general rule, be given a strict interpretation that reflects its ordinary meaning, namely "immediately" or "without delay". At this step of the detection procedure, a detained driver does not have a right to counsel as guaranteed by section 10(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, since the driver must provide a breath sample immediately. The limit on this right is justified because the detention is very brief. It is therefore essential to the constitutional validity of this provision that the interpretation given to the word "forthwith" be consistent with its ordinary meaning. As she noted, "[t]he more flexibly the word 'forthwith' is interpreted, the less the recognized justification for limiting the right to counsel holds up".

Justice Côté stated that, exceptionally, unusual circumstances may justify a flexible interpretation of the word "forthwith" if they are related to the use of the device or the reliability of the result. However, unusual circumstances cannot arise from budgetary considerations or considerations of practical efficiency, such as the supplying of ASDs to police forces or the time needed to train officers to use them. The absence of a device at the scene at the time the demand is made is not in itself an unusual circumstance.

This SCC decision dealt with the interpretation of "forthwith" under the previous version of the Criminal Code (section 254(2)). In 2018, Parliament enacted section 320.27 of the Code which replaced that language with the term "immediately". The intent behind this change was to adopt clearer language and not change the law.

The Court in Breault addressed the applicability of their interpretation of "forthwith" with the newer section of the Code. At paragraphs 38 to 44 of their decision, the Court analyzed and confirmed "that the guidance provided by this judgment on the interpretation of the immediacy requirement in s. 254(2)(b) Cr. C. applies to the interpretation of the word "immediately" in s. 320.27(1)(b) Cr. C."

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.