Mother of Surrey woman killed by drunk driver weighs in on proposed impaired driving laws

“If they’re not enforced by the courts, then they don’t do any good”

The mother of a Surrey woman who was killed by a drunk driver in 2011 is speaking out against the Trudeau government’s plan to legalize marijuana and predicts it will lead to more impaired driving in Canada.

“I can guarantee you we are going to see impaired driving rise, sadly,” said Markita Kaulius, founder of Families for Justice. Kaulius cited a study indicating that the marijuana of today is 400 times more potent now than in the 1960s and THC, pot’s active ingredient, can stay in the body’s system for three months.

“When they legalize marijuana I hope they will be able to regulate the THC levels and not have it as strong as it is today.”

Last Thursday, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould introduced sweeping changes to Canada’s impaired driving laws dealing with alcohol and marijuana offences. They have yet to be approved by Parliament.

“This bill, if it passes Parliament, will be one of the strongest pieces of impaired driving legislation in the world and I’m very proud of that,” the minister said. “Ensuring that we have safety on our roads and highways is of paramount concern. I am confident of the constitutionality of the mandatory roadside testing. This is not a device or a tool that does not exist in other places in the world.”

“This bill, if it passes Parliament, will be one of the strongest pieces of impaired driving legislation in the world and I’m very proud of that,” the minister said.

Kaulius lost her daughter Kassandra, 22, to a drunk driver in Surrey in 2011 and noted that another 1,074 people were killed by impaired drivers and over 63,000 were injured that same year.

“We still struggle every day with the loss of Kassandra,” she told the Now-Leader.

READ ALSO: Focus: Mother of Surrey drunk driving victim on sobering DUI stats.

Since her daughter’s death, Kaulius and her husband Victor have been lobbying the federal government to change Canada’s impaired driving laws.

Kaulius “appreciates” what the federal government plans to to do with respect to drunk driving, but isn’t holding out great hope for productive change.

“We can have laws in place but if they’re not enforced by the courts, then they don’t do any good,” she said. Maximum penalties, she added, are not given out.

“The laws are there but they’re not enforced by our judges.” She said there has “never, ever” been a case in Canada where a drunk driver has been sentenced to life in prison for killing someone. “They have a maximum, but no judges give it out.”

WHAT IS PROPOSED

Highlights of the proposed legislation include, for drug-impaired driving offences, police officer being authorized to collect saliva samples if they suspect a driver has drugs in their system.

It also allows police to demand breath samples from drivers “without first requiring that they have a suspicion that the driver has alcohol in their body,” according to a government backgrounder.

According to the government, research suggests many impaired drivers escape detection and giving police this power would “reduce litigation regarding whether or not the officer had a reasonable suspicion.”

Critics argue this gives police too much power, contrary to provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which protect citizens from unreasonable search and seizure.

SEE ALSO: Mourning parents watch CounterAttack blitz from Langley roadside

The proposed legislation also seeks to eliminate a suspect’s chances of escaping liability by claiming they’d had a drink just before driving and were not yet over the legal limit at the time they were driving because the alcohol was not yet fully absorbed by their body.

By enshrining a two-hour time frame to remove the “drinking and dashing” defence, the government hopes to discourage the risky behavior some drivers engage in of drinking then driving right after, in the hope they get home before hitting the impaired limit.

‘That’s not much time,” Kaulius said of the two-hour plan. “I think that needs to be amended to maybe four hours.”

The legislation governing driving while impaired by drugs includes penalties ranging from a $1,000 fine to up to 10 years in prison, depending on the amount of THC in the driver’s blood, and up to life in prison in cases involving injury or death.

A GUILTY PLEA

In the aftermath of Kaulius’ daughter’s death, Natasha Leigh Warren, 35, of North Delta pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death, failing to remain at the scene of a crash and driving with a blood alcohol content over the legal limit causing death.

She was drunk when she ran a red light at 152nd Street and 64th Avenue and slammed her company van into the driver’s side of Kassandra Kalius’ BMW at 103 kilometres an hour. Warren was sentenced in Surrey provincial court to 37 months in prison and is also prohibited from driving for eight years.

She had drank more than a bottle and a half of wine before getting behind the wheel and was driving around Surrey for about 45 minutes before T-boning Kassandra’s car. Kassandra was only three blocks from her home and had been returning from playing softball at Cloverdale Athletic Park.

Warren got out of her van, walked up to the young woman as she lay dying, then ran to hide in some bushes, where she was later arrested.

The legislation the federal Liberals are proposing would maintain current mandatory prison sentences for repeat drunk drivers – 30 days for a second offence and 120 days for the next – and a maximum two years less a day for cases not involving injury or death, up from 18 months, and up to 10 years from five upon indictment.

The maximum penalty for dangerous driving causing death would be increased to life in prison, up from 14 years.

“Sadly, there are very few cases where 10 years has been given out,” Kaulius told the Now-Leader. “On average it has been about two to three years sentences that are handed down in court. Actual time served for causing a death is about seven to nine months. As well, a sentence of 10 years equates to an individual serving about two and a half years in jail.”

Kaulius said she hopes the new laws, if passed, will deter some people from driving impaired. Her group Families for Justice has been fighting for about six years now for tougher impaired driving laws and now represents roughly 125 families who have, like her own, lost a loved one to a drunk driver.

In that time, she noted, the group has met with three provincial attorney generals, three federal justice ministers, numerous MPs, and submitted a petition with 117,000 signatures (collected in person, not online) calling for tougher impaired driving laws.

“What more does it take?” she asks.

One aspect of that fight has been to seek changes to the Criminal Code that would change impaired driving causing death to “Vehicular homicide as a result of impairment.”

That has not happened.

“Sadly, our courts still consider impaired driving causing a death as an accident as we have seen due to the low sentences handed out by our courts.

“They are collisions, not accidents,” Kaulius said. “Accidents happen due to mechanical failure or weather conditions. Impaired driving is a choice made by individuals who make the decision to put others at risk on our roadways and highways. We believe that if you kill someone you should be held accountable for the crime you have committed in taking a life. Everyone deserves the right to get home safely at the end of the day.”

On average between 1,250 and 1,500 people are killed by impaired drivers every year in Canada and more than 60,000 are injured each year. That works out to four to six people being killed every days and 190 being injured.

The Government of Canada has announced it will undertake a “robust public awareness campaign” to make sure citizens “are well informed about the dangers of driving under the influence of cannabis and other drugs.”

To this, Kaulius observed, “We have had education and awareness for the past 40 years but we still continue to see impaired driving as the number-one criminal cause of death in Canada.”

tom.zytaruk@ thenownewspaper.com