As of December 18, amendments were made to the Criminal Code of Canada that provide police officers broader authority to stop drivers in order to test their blood alcohol level.
Previously, officers had to prove reasonable suspicion of intoxication to be able to request a breathalyzer test. Now, officers can stop drivers at any time — for any reason. Individuals who resist and refuse to take the test can also face fines.
Furthermore, the changes also introduce a new policy, which would allow officers to charge individuals during a two-hour window after driving. You could be confronted by police and ordered to submit to breath tests even while not on the road — in bars, restaurants, or your own home. If it is found that you have a blood alcohol level surpassing the legal limit for driving within the two-hour range, you could face penalties.
This heralds a dangerous shift in the interaction between individuals and the justice system. In these situations, officers are free to arbitrarily suspect illegality. Everyone becomes a potential criminal, and the onus of proving innocence rests on the individual.
A delicate balance needs to be maintained between the state’s obligation to keep citizens safe and secure and its respect for individual privacy and autonomy. These changes increase the state’s ability to excessively intrude into the private lives of citizens.
As students, we should be especially concerned about these changes. The association between postsecondary students and intoxicated driving has become something of a cultural trope.
Newfound independence and becoming a young adult brings with it a propensity to take part in unfamiliar experiences and risky activities — including an inclination to indulge in alcohol and substance abuse. Studies have consistently found heavy episodic drinking and higher instances of drinking and driving among young adults.
There are statistical reasons why police may be more suspicious of postsecondary students and inclined toward monitoring our activities. By operating under a presumption of guilt when encountering us, and now, being able to exercise their power without requiring a reason, officers can interrupt our lives at any time.
Further still, the changes induce fears of racial profiling. An inquiry by the Ontario Human Rights Commission into racial profiling and discrimination within the Toronto Police Service (TPS) has been ongoing since the end of last year. This report flagged many instances when police stopped and detained citizens without having any legal basis for doing so.
In the last decade, the relationship between the TPS and members of racialized communities has become increasingly strained. Much evidence has begun to surface regarding the unfair suspicion with which officers treat Black and brown youth in particular, and the consequent abuse of power in their interactions.
Toronto journalist Desmond Cole has been outspoken about this issue, calling into question the controversial practice of carding exercised by police, whereby officers stop, question, and document citizens who are not suspected of any crime — a practice that is far more likely to be used on young men of colour. According to Cole, police were 17 times more likely to card young Black men in the downtown core in 2013.
The fear is that these changes to the Criminal Code will function as an extension, and justification, of carding practices. Police will now have an ostensible reason to arbitrarily stop and detain citizens, curtailing backlash against random stop-and-checks by arguing that it is to keep citizens safe against the dangers of drunk drivers. The new impaired driving laws must therefore be understood in a broader context of an increasingly powerful police force that compromises the freedom of citizens.
The existing racial biases of the police also means that these new laws will exacerbate the profiling and detainment of racialized folks. This will only further strain the distrust that racialized communities feel toward the police.
Public trust matters. Individual autonomy, privacy, and dignity are paramount. But they are increasingly being compromised as the police intrude in the lives of those it swears to “serve and protect.”
Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.