Manitoba courts handing out fines, not jail time for drunk driving



WINNIPEG – Manitoba's provincial court judges appear increasingly willing to punish impaired drivers in the pocketbook, but aren't dishing out jail terms as a deterrent.

Those are the findings of a QMI Agency investigation of available court records for cases stemming from last year's Winnipeg police holiday Checkstop program.

Of 47 cases that could be tracked in the system, 33 of them have concluded with convictions. A further 12 are awaiting trial. None of the resolved cases involved injuries or deaths.

Of those found guilty, just six served any jail time and four of them had other, more substantive charges in the mix.

Of the two single-occurrence DUI cases which did net jail, the judges dished out short stints behind bars and allowed offenders to serve their time on weekends.

Last summer, Judge Ray Wyant issued what amounted to a wake-up call from the bench to the driving public by sending first-time drunk driver Jesse Friesen to jail for 14 days, telling him "the gloves are coming off" in how the courts handle DUI offences.

The data shows of the five Checkstop-related cases settled after Wyant's much-publicized July 11 decision, jail was handed down in two of them, with one (also overseen by Wyant) being a dangerous-driving case involving a number of other charges.

While jail terms may have been infrequent, the Checkstop data review shows the courts appear unwilling to hand down the minimum available $1,000 fine and year-long driving prohibition for a summary conviction DUI offence.

Out of 28 cases where fines were meted out, only three qualified for the minimum penalty. The highest fine handed down among them was $3,452.

The prevalence of fines as punishment shows the courts -- and society as a whole -- aren't treating drinking and driving for the awful crime it is, a Winnipeg man who lost his wife to a crash involving a suspected drunk driver says.

"The way it's treated now is like a speeding ticket and it's just not right," Robert Taman said Thursday. "Fines don't work. It's time to up the penalty."

Taman's wife, Crystal, was killed in February 2005 in a highly-publicized collision involving an off-duty Winnipeg cop. Derek Harvey-Zenk ultimately served a conditional sentence in the community after a plea deal resulted in any alcohol-related allegations he faced being dropped.

As is typical, virtually all people arrested and charged by police during the Checkstops were hit with two distinct offences: impaired operation of a motor vehicle and driving with a blood alcohol level over .08. Virtually all saw the Crown stay one of the charges after a conviction was entered on the other.

The court records show most accused were convicted on the drive over .08 offence.

Winnipeg police said Wednesday seven drivers were criminally charged after stopping 1,101 vehicles in week three of Checkstop 2012, bringing the total to 24 since the program began in early December.

It concludes in early January.

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