By Jordan W. Charness; photo courtesy

The criminal justice system is made up of two separate sections: the police who are charged with keeping the peace and arresting criminals, and the prosecutors and judges who are charged with making sure that the criminals are punished and the innocent go free. It’s an intricate system of checks and balances that tries to make living in our society safe for individuals and the public at large.

But things are not always as cut and dried as you see them on television. There is often a murky line between what actually happened and what people think happened. Sometimes, someone who commits a crime is not actually a criminal until after the crime is committed.

Drinking and driving is a crime that is most often committed by people who never think they are criminals. These are typical everyday people with families, jobs, homes, and a typical “normal” life. Then they go to a party throw back a few drinks, get behind the wheel of a car, and find out their entire lives have changed. They don’t think they’re criminals, but the police, the justice system, and society at large definitely do consider their behaviour as criminal.

Penalties for drinking and driving have become much stiffer in the past decade. In many provinces the maximum tolerable amount of alcohol the bloodstream has been reduced so that even those who are driving with an amount that is below the .08 criminal code level may still find themselves charged with a penal offence and lose their driving privileges and have their cars seized.

What happens to these people? Let’s follow a typical scenario.

Neil goes to a holiday party. He’s a big guy who is used to having a few drinks on a daily basis. He is sure he knows how alcohol affects him and is positive that he never drinks so much that his driving would be impaired. Over a period of three hours he has just three beers and a couple of shots, and one more for the road. He also ate quite a bit from the buffet and figured that his head was clear and he was good to drive.

While his head may have been clear, his reaction time had slowed by 50 per cent. Although he saw the car backing out of the driveway, he didn’t manage to get his foot onto the brake in time to stop himself from smashing into it and injuring the children in the back seat.

Although legally he may not have been responsible for the accident, since the other driver should have checked for traffic before leaving the driveway, when the police arrived they smelled alcohol on Neil’s breath and asked him if he had been drinking. He admitted that he had a few drinks and then submitted to a breathalyzer test. He failed the roadside breathalyzer and was brought to the police station for the full test. He failed.

His car was seized and his driving privileges were immediately suspended. He only blew 1.0 but that was still over the legal limit. He had just committed a crime. He also injured two children.

His case came to court seven months later and he really did not have a defence. He decided to plead guilty and accept the consequences. Since it was a first offence he paid a $1,000 fine and lost his right to drive for a year. But since he also injured two children in the incident he faced a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail. His final sentence hearing has not yet been held but some jail time is definitely in his future.

Neil didn’t think he was a criminal. The family in the car he hit certainly does. What do you think?

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