McGuinty defends tough new street-racing laws from mounting criticism
Tobi Cohen, THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO - There's no problem with the way Ontario police are interpreting tough new street-racing legislation, and officers will continue to impound the vehicles of speeders despite mounting criticism, Ontario's top cop said Wednesday.
Speed-related highway fatalities are down some 42 per cent this year, and much of that has to do with the new laws enacted last spring, Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Julian Fantino said.
"We make no apologies for enforcing the law of the land, and I think it's a greater-good situation where the public appreciates what we're doing," he said.
Fantino also slammed politicians and media that have suggested police have misinterpreted the laws.
"It's uninformed and it's misdirected," he said of the criticism.
Last May, Ontario passed street-racing and stunt-driving legislation that increased maximum fines to $10,000 - the highest penalty in Canada - and allowed police to automatically seize cars for up to a week for those caught driving more than 50 kilometres an hour above the posted speed limit.
Fantino's comments come as new figures released by the Ministry of the Attorney General show many of those charged under the law are getting off easy in court.
Recent reports suggest two-thirds of those charged under street-racing legislation have pleaded guilty to lesser offences or have been let off entirely.
Critics have argued the legislation has effectively given police "extraordinary" powers to enforce a penalty before anyone is even convicted and has resulted in hefty towing and impound fees for otherwise law-abiding citizens.
"I don't think it's appropriate that people take liberty as they have been who are basically misinformed about the role of the police in this to criticize as they do our front-line police officers who I think are saving lives," Fantino said.
He expressed confidence that the judiciary is "as committed to saving lives as we are," and he suggested this isn't the first time police have been granted such powers.
Police already have the authority to seize and suspend a person's driver's licence for drinking and driving, and there are existing provisions in law for seizures prior to a conviction being rendered.
Earlier in the day, Premier Dalton McGuinty vehemently defended the legislation.
"We think it's a good law. We think it's a solid law," he said. "We will continue to support the law. I know our police will continue to enforce that law and our prosecutors will prosecute any transgressions in court."
What happens in the courtroom is at the discretion of prosecutors, McGuinty said, noting the important factor is that the legislation gets bad drivers off the road and saves lives.
"The purpose, I think, is pretty straightforward," he said. "It's to save lives, it's to reduce injuries, fatalities on our highways. We think it's a good law."
But NDP Leader Howard Hampton insisted the law goes against a "fundamental principle of law that we are presumed innocent until proven guilty."
"What these cases show is that people are presumed guilty," he said. "They're being punished under that section of the act and later not being convicted under that section of the act, and that suggests to me a fundamental problem."
Hampton, who voted against the legislation, said while laws are needed to fight street racing, expanding the powers of police is not the way to do it.
He suggested the problem lies with getting Highway Traffic Act charges before the courts and that the government should consider making the courts more "efficient and responsive."
Opposition Leader Bob Runciman suggested the definition of street racing and stunt driving should be more clear and that the legislation should be reviewed for flaws.
But it doesn't appear to be a question of police misinterpreting the law, he said, adding "it's more a question for the Crowns and the courts."
© The Canadian Press, 2008