Chasing drunks

With the courts pulling back on B.C.’s roadside suspensions, police are forced to jump through more hoops

Sgt. Glenn Vermette



One drink.

That’s how many alcoholic beverages the young man, sitting behind the wheel of his car, tells Const. Steven Lefebvre he consumed before he was stopped at a Victoria police road check around 2 a.m Sunday.

Detecting the strong smell of alcohol in the vehicle, Lefebvre leans closer through the driver’s open window.

He asks the driver to step out and watches him walk to the back of the vehicle parked near Douglas and View streets. The man’s movements are too slow and unsteady for the constable to be confident in the man’s ability to operate a vehicle. A breathalyzer test produces a “fail” reading.

“You have had more than one (drink), right? So right now you are being detained for a criminal investigation for impaired driving. Do you understand that?” Lefebvre asks, before taking the man’s car keys, placing him in the back of a police cruiser and reading him his rights.

“His car will be towed and impounded for 24 hours,” says Sgt. Glenn Vermette, head of VicPD’s traffic enforcement section.

Under tougher laws that came into effect in B.C. a year ago, the alleged impaired driver would have been immediately prohibited from driving for 90 days and his car impounded for 30 days.

But B.C.’s Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 30 that the toughest penalty for blowing a “fail” on a breathalyzer device, that is, having more than 100 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood (the legal limit is 80 milligrams) was not constitutional.

Since then police in B.C. can only impound an impaired driver’s vehicle for a day, and they’re back to spending hours processing an arrest.

Tonight, Lefebvre will take the impaired driver back to the department for more detailed breath checks, and allow him to call a lawyer. Fingerprints and photographs will be taken, and streams of paperwork filled out – time the officer could have spent back at the ICBC-sponsored CounterAttack road check.

“Impaired drivers have always been the most complicated routine criminal investigation a police officer does,” Vermette says.

He is confident the province will make any necessary legislation changes next spring in order to bring back the tough roadside prohibitions, which he says cut impaired driving deaths by 50 per cent in B.C. over the past year.

As the vehicles trickle through the first police checkpoint of the night in the 700-block of Yates St., the team also checks for unlicensed drivers or vehicles that aren’t safe to be on the roads. A few tickets are issued, and one man swears a blue streak when his car is towed for a series of traffic violations.

Another car approaches, and Vermette leans in the driver’s window, asking to see a licence. The officer walks to the back of the vehicle, where he eyes the licence plate.

“I smell alcohol,” Vermette mutters, before returning to the driver and asking him to pull his car over.

The man, who says he had two drinks earlier in the night, passes a breathalyzer test.

Four hours later, officers have taken just one impaired driver off the streets. But Vermette sees their efforts as a success, possibly preventing tragedy.

Even with all the publicity about drunk driving, Vermette says some people’s mindsets haven’t changed.

He’ll never forget one especially grisly crash early on in his 22-year policing career.

“I’ve always remembered a 16-year-old girl in her white grad dress. She was in the backseat of a car with some guy who was drunk and slammed into a rock wall.”

The teen was thrown from the vehicle and she wasn’t breathing when officers arrived on scene.

“I’ll never forget starting to do a chest compression to do CPR and I could feel the palm of my hand go right through her chest and I could feel the road underneath,” Vermette recalls. “Just mush. That’s how hard the impact was.”

Back at the road check, Vermette waves his neon-green wand, signalling another  waiting driver to come forward. The officer leans down to the window, asking the same questions he will repeat dozens of times that night.

Still, Vermette knows that the answer isn’t nearly as important as what he could smell on the driver’s breath.

“Hi. Have you had anything to drink tonight?” he says.

 

 

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