Wilson v British Columbia: A Clear-Cut Ruling to Save Lives
Throughout the years, various offences have been enacted, both in the Criminal Code and under provincial regulation, to deal with a matter of grave public apprehension in Canada: impaired driving. One attempt to address this concern has been through the automatic roadside driving prohibition scheme (the “ARP regime” or “ARP scheme”) that has been used in British Columbia, under the Motor Vehicle Act (“MVA”). The interpretation of this scheme is the core issue in Wilson v British Columbia (Superintendent of Motor Vehicles), 2015 SCC 47 [Wilson].
The ARP Scheme
Notwithstanding that it is a provincial scheme, the ARP is enforced under s. 254 of the Criminal Code. Specifically, it is triggered by a roadside demand for a breath sample, using an approved screening device (“ASD”) to collect the sample. If the driver’s breath sample meets the level of “warn” (a blood alcohol level of 50 mg of alcohol/100 mL of blood or higher) or “fail” (a blood alcohol level of 80 mg of alcohol/100 mL of blood or higher) and the peace officer “has reasonable grounds to believe, as a result of the analysis that the driver’s ability to drive is affected by alcohol,” as per s. 215.41(3.1)(a) and (b) of the MVA, he or she must issue an immediate driving prohibition.
The issue in Wilson was whether an officer could rely on the ASD result when assessing whether a driver’s ability to drive is affected by alcohol.
In September of 2012, Mr. Wilson was stopped at a police road check in Coombs, British Columbia. After the peace officer noticed an odour of alcohol on Mr. Wilson’s breathe and after a bit of questioning, Mr. Wilson admitted to having drank four beers a few hours earlier and was asked to provide samples of his breath into two different ASDs. Both devices showed a “warn” level, and, as such, the officer served Mr. Wilson with a Notice under s. 215.41(3.1) of the MVA, which prohibited him from driving for three days.
Mr. Wilson applied to have his Notice revoked, claiming that the peace officer did not have reasonable grounds to believe that his driving aptitude was affected by alcohol. He argued that the ASD results were not enough to establish “reasonable grounds” as per s. 215.41(3.1) of the MVA. Mr. Wilson maintained that the officer needed to have provided other evidence that proved his driving was impaired by alcohol.
At the Lower Courts
Under s. 215.41(3.1)(b) of the MVA, the British Columbia Supreme Court judge noted that the legislation would not have included the word “believed” within the section “if it was the legislature’s intent that a notice be issued solely on the basis of an ASD reading” (Wilson, para 14). Accordingly, on this pure reading of the statute, the peace officer needed more evidence to issue the Notice. However, the British Columbia Court of Appeal concluded that the officer’s interpretation was reasonable.
At the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”)
The SCC stated that this case revolved around pure statutory interpretation and Mr. Wilson’s challenge was not successful in shaking the constitutional integrity of the provision. Therefore, the only issue was whether the peace officer interpreted s. 215.41(3.1) of the MVA reasonably.
The SCC used Driedger’s modern rule of statutory interpretation to determine “reasonableness” in the context of s. 215.41(3.1):
Today there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament. (E.A. Driedger, Construction of Statutes (2nd ed. 1983), at p. 87) (Wilson, para 18)
Mr. Wilson claimed that s. 215.41(3.1) of the MVA is ambiguous because the requirement of the “reasonable grounds to believe” test should be robustly interpreted, as it is a provision related to the Criminal Code and this interpretative principle is one that allows for coherence with what the Code is set out to protect. He argued that the results of the ASD could not satisfy the reasonableness test required by the provision.
Justice Moldaver, writing for the unanimous Court, summarized their holding as follows:
[…] S. 215.41(3.1) is not ambiguous. […] A genuine ambiguity exists only when there are two or more plausible readings, each equally in accordance with the intentions of the statute. Section 215.41(3.1) does not meet that test. Indeed, in my view, it does not even given rise to two plausible readings, let alone two such readings that are equally in accordance with the intentions of the statute. Rather, […] when read in light of its text, context, and legislative objective, it admits of only one reasonable interpretation — the one arrived at by the adjudicator. (Wilson, para 25)
The SCC goes on to state that allowing the peace officer to rely on the results of the ASD test was sufficient for fulfilling the objective of the ARP regime, which they identified as “[…] confronting and reducing the devastating effects of impaired driving.” (Wilson, para 37)
Thus, the Court held that the provision was unambiguous and Mr. Wilson’s appeal was dismissed.
Beyond the Facts
The SCC’s decision in Wilson is commendable. The hardline assertive approach to matters related to drunk driving is imperative to the prevention and reduction of lost lives. There is a need for other provinces to adopt schemes similar to the ARP one found in British Columbia. The SCC demonstrates that having clear-cut directives for peace officers to use when interpreting results of the devices used in such regimes is important. There is no room for grey areas – subjective or additional objective confirmatory evidence is not necessary in the case of drinking and driving, where dire consequences are possible.
The ruling in Wilson also highlights an important development within our legal system: the use of technology. The increasing trust and appreciation of technology, such as the use of ASDs for determining blood alcohol levels of drivers, is refreshing. Times are changing and it’s uplifting to see that both the court systems and our legislative leaders are keeping up with the pace.