Another drunk driving case tossed due to court delays

20-month wait for trial in Surrey too long, judge rules.

A man charged with drunk driving has had his case tossed out because it took too long to proceed to trial.

The man was arrested on Oct. 11, 2009, accused of being impaired and driving dangerously. Following his arrest, he was released on a promise to appear more than four months later, on March 3, 2010. It was “an unusually long time period,” according to Judge Michael B. Hicks, who, this spring, heard the man’s request for a stay of proceedings on the grounds that his right to be tried within a reasonable amount of time had been violated.

The accused wasn’t charged until February 2010, and in April 2010, a one-day trial was booked for June 23, 2011 – approximately 20 months after the alleged drunk-driving incident and 16 months after charges were laid.

In his decision, made at the end of May in Surrey Provincial Court but only recently posted online, Hicks ruled that the man’s right to a trial in a reasonable time had indeed been breached.

“Drinking driving offences are of significant concern in the community and the community should reasonably expect accused persons to be brought before the court;” wrote Hicks, “however, the community must also be seen to recognize the value of charter rights, which the courts protect in proper circumstances.”

He blamed slowness by Crown prosecutors and a lack of court resources, saying the man was eager to deal with the charge as quickly as possible.

The accused outlined the impact the outstanding charges were having on him and his anxiousness to see the matter resolved. In the midst of a divorce, he did not tell his wife about the charges because he feared she would use them against him in addressing custody issues and access to his three-year-old daughter.

Hicks referred to a prior case where fellow Judge Peder Gulbransen summarized the purpose for having trials heard in a reasonable time.

Gulbransen said: “Its purpose is: (1) to protect an individual’s right to security of the person by minimizing ‘the anxiety, concern and stigma of exposure to criminal proceedings’; (2) to protect the right to liberty by minimizing ‘exposure to the restrictions on liberty which result from pre-trial incarceration and restrictive bail conditions’; (3) to protect the right to a fair trial by ‘attempting to ensure that proceedings take place while evidence is available and fresh.’ “

However, said Hicks, timely court proceedings must be balanced with the community’s interest in seeing criminal cases resolved.

“In addressing this tension, the court is aware that resources for the criminal justice system are not limitless and that scarce public funds must cover a wide range of interests,” said Hicks.

On the other hand, “there is a point in time beyond which the court will no longer tolerate delay based on a plea of inadequate resources,” he said, noting the Supreme Court of Canada’s guidelines state trials for relatively straightforward cases should be heard within eight to 10 months from when charges are laid.

More and more cases are being thrown out due to court delays in B.C. Earlier this month, The Leader reported on another impaired case that was kicked out due to a 14-and-a-half month delay. The judge in that case referred to several others and said drunk driving trials are routinely double and triple booked in Surrey.

The B.C. Provincial Court’s Justice Delayed report, updated two weeks ago, showed more than half of all cases have been in the system for at least a year. In March, the average delay across B.C. for a two-day criminal trial was 10.6 months. Numbers vary considerably depending on the courthouse. Surrey – with a 16-month wait for a two-day trial – remains the worst.

Five new judges were named in B.C. on Sunday, but critics say it’s far fewer than the number needed to solve the province’s court crisis. Justice Delayed recommended hiring 17 new judges.

– with files from Jeff Nagel