The SafeRoads System has been in place since December 2020, so the Alberta legal community has had a few years now to see it in practice. It is worth pointing out a number of difficulties with the system that Albertans with lower incomes may face compared with others who interact with the system. When interacting with the SafeRoads system, as opposed to the criminal justice system, lower income Albertans will face numerous fees that may be difficult or impossible to pay.

Let’s start with the most egregious fees, the fees that let the government take poor people’s cars. You might be skeptical about that but let me explain. When someone receives an impaired driving ticket (or a refusal to blow ticket) under the SafeRoads scheme called an Immediate Roadside Sanction (“IRS”), the police seize the vehicle that they were driving. The vehicle is sent to an impound lot for 30 days. There is no way to get the vehicle out except for in very specific circumstances, which rarely arise.

At the end of the 30 days, a recipient of an IRS has to pay the impound lot to get their vehicle out. Seizure fees for 30 days can cost over $2000, depending on the seizure lot. Now, you may want to point out that if someone was drinking and driving, you have no sympathy. They should have to pay the seizure fees for their vehicle. I’ll get to that.

But first, what about someone who has been charged by mistake, someone who was not drinking and driving? Even when the recipient of a NAP can prove their innocence, they still have to pay the seizure fees to get their car out of the impound lot. Now, they can apply to be reimbursed by the police service that seized their vehicle, but that’s not until they have actually paid to get the vehicle out. This may result in someone who is completely innocent having their car seized, but not being able to get it back because they can’t afford to pay the impound lot.

Let’s go back to the question of the person who was drinking and driving. They’re guilty. They endangered the public and now they should have to pay for their administrative contravention. However, they’re not always the owner of the vehicle that was seized. Families share cars. If a father receives an IRS in his partner’s car, he or she won’t be able to take the kids to school, go pick up groceries, or take the kids to the doctor for 30 days. If two people live at the same address, SafeRoads won’t let the car out of the impound lot, even if the recipient of the IRS was not the owner of the vehicle.

This might result in an inconvenience for 30 days for some families. For low-income families, this is a disaster. If they can’t pay to get the vehicle out of the impound lot after the 30 days are up, they have simply lost their means of transportation.

You may wonder how a family can afford to buy a car, but they can’t afford to get it out of the seizure lot. It’s worth a reminder that cars can be bought on credit with monthly or weekly payments. There are no financing options for the seizure lot. Moreover, the fees for the seizure lot keep increasing even after the 30 days, so if a family doesn’t have the money to start with, it just keeps getting more and more difficult for them to find it.

Why, you might ask, would the government pass a bill that puts innocent people on the hook for paying their seizure fees? Well, the government didn’t. The legislation doesn’t address this concern. It is a matter of police policy that it is an accused driver who has to apply to be reimbursed and not the seizure lot that needs to apply to be reimbursed.

This policy doesn’t seem to fit with the purpose of the SafeRoads legislation, which was to simplify and streamline impaired driving cases and save police resources. It would be much simpler to have a fixed number of parties who are familiar with the reimbursement process as the ones applying to the police for reimbursement. Instead, the current system has random citizens who have been wrongly charged with impaired driving wasting police time and resources by constantly asking them how to be reimbursed. If the seizure lots applied for reimbursement, there would be no need for the police to spend any time explaining the reimbursement process.

Paying seizure fees, especially when someone is innocent, but also when they are not, disproportionately affects low-income Albertans. It can present a barrier to their getting back on the road, an unfair burden being placed on their families, or even the loss of their vehicle entirely. The current structure for reimbursement of seizure fees is seemingly based on police policy and results in inefficiencies in the system that lead to a waste of police time and resources. It may be time for the police or the legislature to revisit this system to improve efficiency and protect low-income Albertans.

Next, there is a $150 fee just to start interacting with the system. SafeRoads charges $150 to apply for an oral review of an IRS and $50 for a written review. An applicant to SafeRoads has seven days to come up with the money to pay this fee or they lose their chance for a review. This fee may be an inconvenience for some, a need to rearrange their budget for others, or a complete barrier to challenging their IRS for others.

The $150 fee was mentioned in the Legislature as a barrier to accessing SafeRoads reviews when the Legislative Assembly was first debating the SafeRoads scheme. One Member of the Legislative Assembly (“MLA”) noted that the fee to apply for review may be a barrier to accessing the review process. She noted that many Albertans live paycheque to paycheque and, “In those instances those individuals may not find themselves with a few hundred dollars to spare on seven days’ notice. The punishment for that ought not to be an inability to appeal.”[1]

Alberta’s Minister of Justice at the time claimed that he understood the principle that this MLA was proposing and responded that the government would structure the fees so that reviews were accessible to everyone, regardless of their income. However, he continued, “if there’s no access or barrier at all, sometimes it gives you that opportunity just to run something even though you know there’s no legitimate appeal to be brought. Having some threshold there to establish it will kind of help us deal with the caseload coming through the system as well.”[2] It was apparently lost on the Honourable Minister that instituting a fee to apply for review simply put a price on running an illegitimate review, instead of barring them.

In that same session of the Legislature, another MLA rose to address his concerns with the SafeRoads scheme impacting Albertans differently based on where they live or the colour of their skin.[3] It’s not much of a leap to apply his reasoning to the financial situation of individual Albertans as well. Those who can afford $150 get a chance to speak with an adjudicator and explain their case. Those who can afford $50 get the chance to write out their case but lose the opportunity to address any questions an adjudicator might have about their argument, and those who cannot afford $50 in 7 days do not get to appeal at all.

Many Albertans are already living paycheque to paycheque and having to meticulously plan out their budgets. If they are charged with an administrative impaired driving offence, especially if they are wrongly charged, it is unjust that they cannot apply for a review simply because they can’t come up with enough money on the tight deadline that the government has imposed. In the interests of access to justice, the government ought to consider revisiting the fees that they impose on those seeking a SafeRoads review.

[1] Alberta, Legislative Assembly, Hansard, 30th Leg, 2nd Sess, Day 44 (14 July 2020) at 1987 (Kathleen Ganley).

[2] Ibid at 1988 (Doug Schweitzer).

[3] Ibid at 1990 (Richard Feehan).