City stumbles upon possible loophole in vehicle impound rules

A wrecked vehicle sits in an impound lot in the north end of Prince Albert. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

It began as a way to raise revenue, but after one month of operation, Saskatchewan’s first municipal impound lot is raising questions as well as cash.

On Jan. 1, the City of Prince Albert began operating its own SGI approved impound lot, with the goal of offsetting the rising costs of policing (Prince Albert’s $16.5 million police budget accounts for roughly 20 per cent of total spending). However, administrators started noticing two other trends besides increased revenue. The first was the larger-than-expected number of vehicles impounded under Saskatchewan’s impaired driving laws. The second was the slow but steady stream of impounded vehicles being granted early release.

“It’s kind of a catch-22,” said Steve Brown, the city’s finance director. “You’re excited because the city is generating money off of it … but at the same time it’s disappointing.”

In the first three weeks of 2018, 57 vehicles were impounded in Prince Albert’s city lot, with 10 being impounded for violating Saskatchewan’s impaired driving laws. Under those laws, vehicles can be held for 30 or 60 days, depending on the severity of the offence. For example, any driver who blows a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .16 gets their vehicle impounded for 60 days — or at least they’re supposed to.

During that same three-week time period, five vehicles were released early after appeals to the Highway Traffic Board. Three of those vehicles were involved in impaired driving cases. In almost all cases, the city was ordered to release the vehicles after only two to four days in the impound lot.

Brown and other city administrators overseeing the program say those early releases won’t have a major affect on the project’s bottom line, but there are public health and social well-being concerns.

“You’re not just looking at the revenue side,” Brown explained. “We’re starting to see the social impact of all this going on.”

In Saskatchewan, few owners see their impounded vehicles released early. According to numbers provided by the Ministry of Justice, the Highway Traffic Board released 12 per cent of all vehicles that were impounded last year between January and November. However, what few appeals claims there are have been highly successful.

For the first 11 months of 2017, 7,606 vehicles were impounded for a variety of infractions, including impaired driving or driving without a licence. Those impounds resulted in 1,113 HTB hearings, with 912, or roughly 82 per cent, ending with owners getting their vehicles released early.

It’s not a one-year blip on the radar either. In 2016, 1,646 vehicle impound hearings were held; with 1,314 resulting in owners getting their vehicle back early.

The appeals process can begin within a day or two of a vehicle being seized, and rulings are often given the same day as the hearing. Those hearings are conducted over the phone, with two HTB board members who make the ruling, and an HTB coordinator who does administrative work before and after the case.

The high number of successful appeals has community leaders like Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne concerned that tough laws surrounding unlicensed or impaired drivers aren’t as tough as they seem.

“They’re misleading the majority of the population when they say they’re seizing these cars for 30 days or 60 days,” Dionne said. “We have two ministries that are not working together. We have SGI that is trying to stop (violations) and we have the Highway Traffic Board letting them off.”

The appeals process is quick, but not easy. For one thing, it can be expensive. Residents have to pay $175 just to appeal the case, and even if they’re successful, they still have to fork out an additional $125 to SGI for a Vehicle Impound Release Certificate.

Those who do appeal are also responsible for proving to the HTB that they need the vehicles, or that they were not party to the infraction. For example, successful appeals have been filed where the impounded vehicle is needed for urgent medical appointments, or when the impounded vehicle is used by multiple family members who live in rural areas and cannot use public transportation. In other cases, owners have successfully appealed the punishment after loaning their vehicle out to someone who lied about having a valid licence.

When asked about the high success rate of appeals, and whether the $175 fee helped ward off frivolous cases, an HTB representative said the board could not speculate on why residents may or may not decide to appeal.

These appeals fall under a variety of classifications such as serious health threats or extreme hardships. However, Dionne said the point of tough laws is to make people think twice about driving impaired or without a licence. Letting people off after giving up their car for a few days isn’t cutting it.

“The deterrent of taking people’s vehicle for 30 days was to cause a hardship,” Dionne said. “It was to cause a hardship, and I’m not hiding that fact. It’s going to teach you a lesson. Giving their car back in two days almost says (things like) impaired driving aren’t too bad.”

Dionne added that he’d already raised the issue with the provincial government and Prince Albert Carlton MLA Joe Hargrave, who also serves as the Minister for Saskatchewan Government Agency (SGI). During a phone interview on Friday, Hargrave said he was aware of the issue, and had already scheduled a meeting with Ministry of Justice officials to discuss whether there was a loophole in Saskatchewan’s impaired driving laws.

If there is, Hargrave said he’s ready to “jump in with both feet,” but he wants to see a full breakdown of the data first. That would include information on just how many successful appeals are related specifically to impaired driving.

“It could cost you time on the job. It could cost you some not so good discussions with your significant other, or whoever’s car you’re driving,” Hargrave said when asked about impounded vehicles causing hardship. “If that’s the case (that there is a loophole,) I’ll be chatting with (the Ministry of) Justice as to how we get that situation corrected.”

Hargrave said he knew that there was an HTB appeals process, although he said it was designed for specific circumstances, like with rental companies who had vehicles impounded due to the actions of their customers. But for other community leaders, like Dionne, the news has been more of a surprise.

However, one person who wasn’t surprised was Lyle Janzen. He’s a tow-truck driver in his 60s who operates out of Prince Albert and Saskatoon. Janzen works with the City of Prince Albert on its impound lot, and has known about the appeals process for years.

“I understand early release,” he says slowly, before quickly adding. “You already took the guy’s car. Just keep it.”

Janzen began driving tow-trucks for a living as a teenager. He gets paid for how long an impounded vehicle stays in his yard, and if those cars would go unclaimed, he gets money from the auction sale.

There was a time when fewer successful appeals would have meant more money in his pocket, but Janzen doesn’t approach this as a businessman. For him, it’s personal too.

His father was also a tow-truck driver, right up until the day an impaired driver hit and killed him roughly 30 km north of Prince Albert. He was in his tow-truck when it happened.

“If you went out through these cars here, every fifth car is going to have a beer bottle in the back of it somewhere,” Janzen said, gesturing to a line of wrecked cars in the impound lot behind him. “(Impaired driving) just seems to happen a lot and I would imagine come summer it gets worse up here, but we’ll see.”

Janzen’s wife is optimistic that impaired driving is becoming less common in Saskatchewan, but that’s an outlook he doesn’t share. Still, he hopes for the best. Years ago he even started a program call Mistle-tows with his fellow tow-truck drivers where they tow cars home for free on New Year’s Eve.

For him, getting a DUI would cost him his livelihood, but he’s not so sure the current laws are enough.

“I think people have become better at hiding what they’re doing,” he said.

@kerr_jas •