Sahaluk v Alberta: The Right to a Fair Trial, Impaired

Raymond Chen
June 27, 2017

Alberta’s administrative license suspension program immediately suspends the driver’s license of those individuals charged with an alcohol-related driving offence under the Criminal Code.[1] In May 2017, the majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal in Sahaluk v Alberta (Transportation Safety Board) found that this program is unconstitutional because it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically, the right to liberty in section 7 and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in section 11(d).[2]

Alberta’s administrative license suspension program

In Alberta, individuals that are charged with an alcohol-related driving offence under the Criminal Code face an immediate license suspension that continues until the criminal charge is resolved, whether that is through a guilty plea or following the end of a trial. People found guilty of or who plead guilty to the criminal offence face a mandatory one-year license suspension.[3] During that period, they can apply (if eligible) to drive with an ignition interlock device, which prevents a vehicle from starting unless the driver provides a suitable breath sample.[4]

Statistics show that the average time between the date of the offence and a scheduled trial date for cases to that point was over nine months.[5] One problem arising was that, for an accused person, immediately pleading guilty shortened the suspension by an average of about seven months.[6] In addition, about 20% of those charged were ultimately found not guilty; however, they still lost the ability to drive while awaiting trial.[7]

Although the administrative license suspension program allows drivers to appeal their suspension to the Alberta Transportation Safety Board, this only happens in limited circumstances.[8] The Board can only set aside a suspension if it determines that the accused did not commit the offence on a balance of probabilities.[9] A large number of appeals do not get heard by the Board.[10] Of those heard, only one-third were successful.[11]

The effect of the program on the right to be presumed innocent

Section 11(d) of the Charter guarantees that any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing.[12] The majority in Sahaluk concluded that the administrative license suspension program offends this right in several ways:[13]

  • The punishment (the suspension) is imposed immediately following a criminal charge, before the guilt of the driver is proven at trial.[14] In criminal law, the accused has a right to a fair trial. The onus is on the Crown to prove the accused committed the criminal offence. [15] Any punishment received occurs after a guilty verdict is reached.[16] In the case of the suspension, however, the punishment occurs before the accused person’s trial.
  • Those who are eventually found not guilty still suffer a lengthy suspension during the time they wait for their trial date.[17]
  • Further, the program encourages people to give up their right a fair trial because losing at trial results in a longer overall suspension compared to pleading guilty at the earliest possible date.[18] In other words, it encourages people to plead guilty to avoid a longer suspension.

The program’s impact on the right to liberty

The majority of the Court compared the immediate suspension of a person’s driver’s license to a restriction on free movement. They concluded that the suspension limits the accused’s section 7 Charter right to liberty. While driving a vehicle is not in and of itself a liberty interest, the majority noted that being punished for one’s conduct in a context that is closely tied to the criminal prosecution does engage the protected liberty interests in the Charter.[19]

The majority’s conclusion that the program violated section 7 of the Charter was closely connected to the fact that it offends the presumption of innocence.[20] The reach of the program also goes too far in trying to achieve public safety because it punishes everybody, regardless of whether they are innocent or a danger to public.[21]

Further, the measures taken to achieve the objectives of the program were grossly disproportionate.[22] The length of the suspension before trial varies for reasons that have nothing to do with traffic safety or the blameworthiness of the driver.[23] Immediately suspending the licenses of everyone charged as if they are or will become repeat offenders is excessive because the suspension’s increased effect on deterrence is not significant.[24]


In this case, the administrative license suspension regime’s violation of the Charter rights is clear, broad, and harmful.[25] As the program could not be justified, the majority concluded that the administrative license suspension program is unconstitutional. However, the Court issued a suspended declaration which means that, though the law is unconstitutional the province is given one year to fix it.[26] Meanwhile the law is temporarily still valid until the one-year period expires.

As of June 26, 2017, there has been no appeal filed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

This article was written by a law student for the general public.

[1] Sahaluk v Alberta (Transportation Safety Board), 2017 ABCA 153 at para 1.

[2] Ibid at paras 78-81.

[3] Ibid at para 12.

[4] Ibid at para 13.

[5] Ibid at para 30.

[6] Ibid at para 48.

[7] Ibid at para 2.

[8] Ibid at paras 39-44.

[9] Ibid at para 40.

[10] Ibid at para 44

[11] Ibid.

[12] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11, s 11(d).

[13] Sahaluk, supra note 1 at para 99.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid at para 81.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid at paras 99-100.

[19] Ibid at paras 94, 111-112.

[20] Ibid at paras 79, 115.

[21] Ibid at paras 122, 129.

[22] Ibid at paras 132-34

[23] Ibid at para 132.

[24] Ibid at para 133.

[25] Ibid at para 3.

[26] Ibid at para 151.

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University of Alberta
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