Penner talks crime and punishment with Chamber

Twenty-three people are alive today because of B.C.'s tougher drinking-and-driving legislation, Attorney-General Barry Penner told Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce members last Friday.

Twenty-three people are alive today because of B.C.’s tougher drinking-and-driving legislation, Attorney-General Barry Penner told Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce members last Friday.

And the Chilliwack-Hope MLA also spoke about the new civilian office that will investigate allegations of serious wrong-doing by the RCMP, a move he had suggested to local RCMP back in the late 1990s following controversy over police handling of an in-custody death in Chilliwack.

Penner told the chamber members it has actually been illegal to drink and drive over .05 for 30 years, but drinking drivers didn’t lose their licence until they hit the .08 mark. Until that point, all they suffered was a 24-hour roadside suspension.

“People were getting pretty casual about that,” he said.

But now that licences are being lost at .05, the number of highway deaths attributed to drinking drivers has decreased.

“It looks like there are 23 people alive today in B.C. that would have been killed were it not for the new 0.5 penalty,” Penner said.

There has also been a “dramatic drop” in the number of impaired cases going to provincial courts, he added.

Impaired cases were taking up half the court’s time in Chilliwack, he said, and an average 33 per cent in other courts around the province.

The proposed Independent Investigations Office was a recommendation from the inquiry into the tasering death of of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski by RCMP officers in 2007.

Penner said as attorney-general he helped draft the legislation with former judge Thomas Braidwood, who led the inquiry.

The civilian-led IIO will be the “most independent model” in Canada, Penner said, and is supported by senior RCMP officials.

Penner said he made a similar recommendation to Chilliwack RCMP officials in the late ’90s after the local controversy over police handling of the in-custody death of 45-year-old Phil Ferguson.

Ferguson had mental issues and was arrested in December, 2000 after making complaints about police treatment of the mentally ill.

Police investigators found no action while in custody that would have led to Ferguson’s death.

But family and friends of Ferguson were not so sure.

“People were wondering how thorough the (RCMP) investigation was,” Penner recalled. “There will always be some people who will be suspicious of that.”

“I’m not saying anything untoward happened necessarily, but there was some perception amongst the public that they may not get an accurate account of what took place, if the police were left to investigate themselves,” he said.

But his suggestion at the time that an outside agency review the RCMP investigation was “not deemed necessary or acceptable,” Penner said.

The new panel will also have civilian investigators.

“The challenge, of course, is that some of these investigations can be quite complicated,” Penner said, and civilians might not have the expertise needed.

Until civilian investigators can be trained, former police officers will do “the ground-level investigations,” he said.

“Over time, we hope to train up civilian investigators with the necessary expertise,” he said, to obtain the kind of evidence that will stand up in a court prosecution.

The new legislation is expected to be passed by the legislature before the end of the summer, and the IIO in operation by the end of the year.

rfreeman@theprogress.com