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New impaired driving legislation unduly affects Black Nova Scotians, lawyer says

Connor Smithers-Mapp. Photo Robert Devet

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – New federal legislation gives police the authority to administer alcohol and drug tests without reasonable suspicion that a driver is impaired. 

Organizations such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have warned that these new rules contained in Bill C-64 will unfairly impact racial minorities, who tend to be disproportionately singled out for traffic stops.

It looks like these concerns were warranted.

“I am getting calls about this, and these calls are primarily from Black men,” says Connor Smithers-Mapp, a lawyer and community activist.

It used to be police could only order  a driver to take a breathalyser test if they had reason to believe they were impaired, say the smell of alcohol is apparent, or there are open bottles in the car, that kind of thing, Smithers-Mapp says. 

Now that is no longer required, and you can be pulled over for whatever reason, and then be ordered to take the test.  

It’s important to note that cops still need a reason to pull you over for that traffic stop. But that is not necessarily an obstacle.

“All you have to do is say something, for example, I pulled you over because a tail light is busted or you didn’t signal when you changed lanes. Then at that point, the police officer can say, and by the way, I’m going to have you do a drug or alcohol test. And this is exactly what’s happening on the ground,” says Smithers-Mapp.

“The threshold is so low that they just make anything up. When I’ve been pulled over, they run their checks on their computer, give me my papers back, and as they’re walking away I ask them why I was pulled over, and they say the same thing every time, oh, I’m sorry, I thought you weren’t wearing your seat belt,” he says.

Although not in scope in the narrow sense, Scot Wortley in his report writes that the same racist biases affecting street checks apply to traffic and pedestrian stops as well.

See also: Racist police not just an urban phenomenon, Lucasville community meeting tells Dr. Wortley

Wortley recommends that police collect data, including the race of people being stopped when conducting a traffic stop. He also wants surveys to find out how cops are perceived to behave when engaging in traffic stops.

But whether these recommendations will be followed up effectively is the million dollar question.

Smithers-Mapp has his own ideas on this. Training and education and stats are not enough, he says.

“When a police officer pulls me over for no reason, I need to be able to have some way that I can complain, and know that officer will be held to account. All that has to be operationalized in policy,” says Smithers-Mapp. 

“Very little suggests that they’re going to codify any of this into the policy manuals, including clear sanctions for non-compliance. And that’s the problem.”

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