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Thousands could sue over bad drunk-driving convictions

Some lost homes, jobs over law ruled unconstitutional.

When a judge ruled this month that B.C.'s new drunk-driving laws were unconstitutional, it threw thousands of convictions into question -- including some that cost people their jobs and homes.

Now those thousands of British Columbians are looking for compensation.

Will they get it? That too depends on what a judge decides.

But one of the lawyers acting for them warns that the stakes created when the Liberal government declared war on drunk drivers are "incredibly high."

"I have a number of clients that lost their job because of this,'' says Victoria lawyer Jeremy Carr.

"What's the government going to do for people who have lost everything? So they've lost their jobs; some people have lost their home.''

Monday, lawyers arguing for both sides will be back to argue before the judge who has just ruled that B.C.'s year-old law aimed at anyone who blows over .08 in fact violates search and seizure protections.

At least 80 of Carr's clients blew over .08 in a roadside blood-alcohol test and had a number of penalties and fines imposed without them ever being charged -- one of the provisions of the new law.

Victoria says there are thousands in the same boat: more than 15,000 people either failed the roadside test or refused to take it.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jon Sigurdson ruled this month that some parts of the new law went too far -- by allowing automatic driving suspensions of up to 90 days, impounding of vehicles and imposition of thousands of dollars in costs.

Drivers who blew over .08 had no recourse to a meaningful appeal process, he ruled. But he upheld most of the law, including penalties for those who blow between .05 and .08.

When he issued the ruling, Sigurdson also lawyers for both sides to return quickly to suggest alternatives to the penalties that were declared unconstitutional.

Carr's fear? That drivers who were convicted may end up with nothing. And that they'll be left to sue through small claims court or start a class-action lawsuit for costs and damages.

The chances for such suits aren't great, he says, because past precedent has ruled that when changng rules or legislation, the government hasn't had to make such payments.

He does have one other hope: that any decision on whether to remove the failed road test from a person's driving record may be left up to the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, and that the superintendent removes them.

The provincial government boasted repeatedldy that "Canada's toughest roadside impaired driving penalties" have seenalcohol-related motor vehicle deaths by 40 per cent in B.C. It also said police have impounded more than 20,000 vehicles under the new law.

Last week, Alberta hopped on the bandwagon with a controversial law to crack down on drunk driving by revoking a driver's licence once charges are laid.

Critics say that could force someone to live without a driver's licence for months or years before guilt or innocence is determined.

-- with files from Canadian Press

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