Ont. street-racing law constitutional, says AG
TORONTO - A second ruling against Ontario's stunt driving law is unlikely to put the brakes on the legislation, although minor tweaking may be needed to ensure it stays in place after it was once again ruled unconstitutional.
Attorney General Chris Bentley defended the law Monday after a Newmarket judge dismissed stunt driving charges against Alexandra Drutz, an 18-year-old woman charged with going 157 kilometres per hour on Highway 407 north of Toronto.
Justice Peter West ruled that having a potential penalty of up to six months in jail for people caught driving 50 kilometres an hour over the posted speed limit violates the Charter of Rights because the law does not allow the accused to present a defence.
But Bentley said the law is an important public safety initiative and will continue to be enforced.
"The law was brought in to save lives," said Bentley.
"It is extremely important that we have safe roads, not only for those who are driving but all of the people who are users of the road."
Bentley said he still considers the 2007 law constitutional, and will fight to uphold it when the Court of Appeal hears an initial case in January.
Toronto criminal lawyer James Morton called West's decision "a real blow to the legislation," and said it will have some influence on the January appeal.
"It's leading to there being a weight of decisions in favour of finding it unconstitutional," said Morton.
"It's going to be difficult to have both of these decisions overturned."
The problem could be fixed with a little tweaking, however, because both rulings took issue with the same provision.
"To fix it all they have to do is remove the availability of a prison term," said Morton.
"And because the prison term is imposed by regulation, they could make the change next Wednesday in cabinet."
Enzo Rondinelli, the Toronto lawyer who defended Drutz, said West's decision only applies to his client and isn't binding province-wide, but noted the win adds weight to the argument against including a prison term in the legislation.
"Tweaking it doesn't take much and that may happen if that's what the Court of Appeal agrees to," Rondinelli said.
"It's not like (the stunt driving law) is going to be completely taken out of the books. I think it will just be tweaked so it meets constitutional standards."
In September, Judge G.J. Griffin of the Ontario Court of Justice in Napanee, Ont., overturned the conviction of Oakville's Jane Raham, 62, who was clocked at more than 50 kilometres per hour over the limit.
He found the conviction unconstitutional because the law requires no criminal intent when speeding is 50 kilometres per hour over the speed limit, which places it under the category of "absolute liability" under law and essentially makes a conviction automatic.
Under the law, minimum fines for street racers are $2,000, with a maximum of $10,000, and up to six months in jail -- a penalty Ontario said at the time was the highest in Canada for street racing.
Neither decision disagreed with the law's ability to suspend speeders' licences or seize their vehicles, Morton added, and very few people are ever sent to jail on stunt driving charges anyway.
"With changes (the law) can be maintained easily ... it would have no material effect on the law or its enforcement," said Morton.
Bentley said he would be taking a look at West's ruling before deciding whether to appeal it, but added he's not planning to make any changes until the Court of Appeal renders its decision on the Raham case.
The law, he said, is having the desired effect "and that is an extremely important starting point for the people of Ontario."
According to the Ministry of the Attorney General, Ontario Provincial Police have indicated that there has been a 34.6 per cent decrease in speed-related traffic fatalities on provincially patrolled highways in 2009 compared to the previous year.
That's on top of a 29 per cent decrease in speed-related traffic fatalities on those highways in 2008, compared to the year before.
Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci said police will continue ticketing stunt drivers because the legislation is still in place.
"As a parent, not as a politician, as a grandparent, not as a politician, as a person, not as a politician -- somebody's going 50 kilometres over the speed limit in a school zone, to me, I don't care how you define it, it's stunt driving," Bartolucci said.