Ontario cracks down on repeat drunk drivers; seizes vehicles

Three vehi­cles owned by two repeat drunk drivers have been taken away permanently under On­tario’s new drinking and driving civil vehicle forfeiture law.

This is the first time in Canada that vehicles owned by repeat drunken drivers have been forfeited under a civil ve­hicle forfeiture law. In both cases, government lawyers satis­fied the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that the vehi­cles were used, or were likely to be used, in a drinking and driving offence and that the own­ers of the vehicles had been suspended from driving for a drinking and driving of-fence two or more times in the past ten years.

On Aug. 18, in South Porcupine, near Timmins, At­tor­ney General Chris Bentley handed over a vehicle to the Ont­ario Community Council on Impaired Driving and its member group, Action Sud­bury, to use as they raise aware­ness about the dangers and consequences of drinking and driving.

Another vehicle will be shar­ed by Ontario Community Council on Impaired Driving member groups in the North­west Region for the same pur­pose.

The provincial government introduced amendments to Ontario’s civil forfeiture law in the Safer Roads for a Safer Ontario Act, 2007. The new provisions took effect in February.

"We’re keeping Ontario’s roads and families safe from vehicles used by people who repeatedly choose to drink and drive," said Bentley. "This new law is a message to drunk drivers: Stop your irresponsible behaviour or you could lose your wheels."

Anne Leonard, Executive Director of the Ontario Com­munity Council, said, "This new law is very impor­tant in fighting impaired driv­ing. Ensuring the public be­comes aware of the conse­quences of repeatedly drinking and driving is also vital. This forfeited vehicle will be used in our community activities to serve as a powerful example of those consequences."

Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino said, "No one poses more of a threat to the safety of everyone who uses our roads, than the driver who continues to drive de­spite having one or more con­victions for impaired driv-ing. The new civil vehicle forfeiture law gives the OPP an effective new tool to remove the vehicles of repeat impaired driving offenders from our roads and highways."

Drinking and driving

Drinking and driving has been targeted by police since the early 1980s, with penalties becoming more strict as time goes along. Here are some of the reasons for the increases:

–  Drinking is a factor in about a quarter of all fatal crashes in Ontario, with twice as many people killed in drinking and driving related crashes in the summer, com­pared to winter.

–  Drunken driving offences include impaired driving, im­paired driving causing bodily harm or death, driving with a blood to alcohol concen­tration over 80mgs, failure to provide a breath sample and driving while disqualified for one of those offences.

Tough penalties

Ontario leads the way in combating drinking and driving through some of the toughest laws and programs in North Am­erica, including:

– Immediate licence suspen­sion;

–  Stiff fines;

– Longer suspension peri­ods;

– Mandatory alcohol educa-tion and treatment; and

–  Vehicle impoundment.

Police are also entitled to immediately seize and impound for 90 days the vehicle of anyone with a suspended driver’s licence who is caught driving.

The Safer Roads for a Safer Ontario Act, 2007 set a new standard for road safety by focusing on vehicles used by repeat drinking and driving offenders. The law allows civil courts, at the request of the At­torney General, to impound and forfeit a vehicle, if the court finds:

–  That the vehicle was involved in, or is likely to be involved in, a drinking and driving offence, and

–  The vehicle is owned or driven by a person whose driver’s licence has been sus­pended for a drinking and driving offence two or more times in the preceding 10 years.

The civil court would also have the power to release a vehicle from "impound" before it is forfeited if the registered owner of the vehicle agrees to certain court-imposed terms and conditions including:

–  Fitting the vehicle with an ignition interlock device – an alcohol breath-screening de­vice that prevents a vehicle from starting if it detects a blood alcohol concentration over a pre-set limit;

– Having the registered owner agree that the person whose actions resulted in the forfeiture application would not drive the vehicle.

The new law also protects the interests of responsible vehicle owners who do, or have done, all they can to ensure that their vehicle is not being driven, or will not be driven in the future, by the person who continues to or is likely to conti­nue to engage in a drinking and driving offence.

How the forfeiture works

The new law applies to auto­mobiles, motorcycles, mot­or assisted bicycles, and  snow­mobiles.

The process for civil forfeiture of vehicles involved in repeat drinking and driving offences begins when police or Crown prosecutors submit a case to the reviewing authority, an independent Crown counsel in the Ministry of the Attorney General. That counsel decides whether the statutory criteria in the Civil Remedies Act have been met. Once that is con­firmed, the case information is forwarded to the ministry’s Civil Remedies for Illicit Activities Office (CRIA), which is responsible for enforcing the Act.

CRIA lawyers bring pro­ceed­ings to court on behalf of the Attorney General. If they can prove that the vehicle was driven, or is likely to be driven, by someone who has commit­ted or is likely to commit a drinking and driving offence, the court can issue orders forfeiting the vehicle to the Crown.

Generally, forfeited vehi­cles go to public auction and the proceeds are deposited into a special purpose account. Direct victims of the unlawful acti­vity associated with the forfeiture can submit a claim for compensation against the funds. Remaining funds may be disbursed for grants to support programs and initiatives that assist victims of unlawful activity or prevent victimi­zation.

Civil Forfeiture Successes

 Ontario’s Civil Remedies for Illicit Activities office is recognized nationally and inter­nationally for its prece­dent-setting work. Since Nov­em­ber 2003, a total of $6-million in property has been forfeited to the Crown. The province also has approxi­mately $10-million in property that is frozen pending the com­pletion of civil forfeiture proceedings.

Under the Civil Remedies Act, the Attorney General has:

–  Forfeited three vehicles under the new civil vehicle forfeiture law;

–  Shut down a notorious Hamilton crack house and transfer­red its ownership to the City of Hamilton;

–  Frozen crack houses in Hamilton and Chatham;

–  Forfeited an outlaw biker clubhouse in Thunder Bay;

–  Frozen an outlaw biker club­house in Oshawa;

–  Crushed two street racing cars;

– Taken 10 guns off the streets (including a stun gun);

–  Forfeited 23 properties used for marijuana grow opera­tions and frozen 46 more;

–  declared forfeited over $1-million in illicit cash;

–  Distributed approximately $1-million in compensation to victims of unlawful activity; and

– Awarded over $900,000 in grants to law enforcement agencies.