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A scarlet letter solution is a crooked route to take on drunken drivers

From the January 12, 2001 Vancouver Sun

By Craig Jones

There is no doubt that police initiatives are taking a bite out of drunk driving.

What was once sadly commonplace, even tacitly endorsed by a large segment of society, is now scorned and abhorred. This is not to say that the war is over; each year in Canada, there are still over 1,700 automobile deaths in accidents involving drinking drivers. It is by some instance the leading cause of death.

Nonetheless, the number of such fatalities has been steadily reduced since the early 1970s. Perhaps no other crime has responded as dramatically to a law enforcement initiative, and this due in on small part to police officers, such as Vancouver’s Inspector Ken Davies, who continually seek new ways to target people who drive drunk.

As a result of such efforts, B.C. and Ontario lead the country in their CounterAttack initiatives, according to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers’ recent provincial “report card”. However, Davies’ last suggestion, to force convicted drunk drivers to display a red “D” in the windows of their cars while driving, is far short of a full step in the right direction, and may well be a large step backward.

There have been two justifications for the so-called “scarlet letter” proposal. The first is that the attachment of social stigma will provide an additional deterrent for drinking drivers. I will deal with that argument in a moment. The second is that it may assist other drivers if they know a driver has a record of drunk driving. Davis said that it would not help other drivers and police officers “if they see [a car with a red letter] weaving down the road late at night.”

First things first. If I saw someone weaving down the road at night, I would be very concerned about their sobriety whether or not they were displaying the scarlet “D”. Moreover, I would be aghast if a police officer, seeing such a weaving car, ignored it because a letter “D” was not displayed.

Aside from the rather trite observation, though, consider this: Is a driver who is already willing to risk the severe penalties attached to a repeat offence actually going to put the red letter in his window? Why would he, especially if the police have said they might focus on such a car for added scrutiny?

There appears to be no valid law enforcement reason for having the display of the letter. Unlike the “N” or “L” displayed by inexperienced drivers, the proposed “D” would say nothing about the current competence or capacity of the vehicle’s operator, unless he actually displayed it while driving drunk, which as I have said is a scenario that stretches credulity.

The remaining justification, and the only one which appears to be remotely logical, is to shame the driver, and perhaps to provide sufficient social stigma so as to prove a specific and general deterrent.

Does such shame rise to the point of being “cruel and unusual punishment” such that it is unconstitutional? Perhaps not.

But consider this: Western societies have abandoned all of the once-popular forms of public punishment and humiliation. The original Puritan “scarlet letter” was a punishment abandoned 200 years before Hawthorne described it in his 1858 novel of the same name. Similarly, the pillory, stocks and ducking chair have gone the way of the history books. So, mercifully have public executions.

By coincidence, as a write, the attention of the world’s human rights community is focused on Nigeria, which stands poised to impose a barbaric (and naturally, public) flogging upon a teenage girl who became pregnant out of wedlock. As yourself upon whom such a punishment reflects more harshly: Is it the girl or the system of “justice” in Nigeria?

In Canada we have long abandoned the deliberate and excessive humiliation of convicted felons. And we have done so not because their humanity is diminished by such primitive and base forms of punishment, but rather because ours is.

Pandering to the mob at the expense of a felon may be popular. It may even be good politics; heaven knows it seems to have worked for Pontius Pilate. But let’s not march out such a plan under the dignified banner of an honourable public policy; it is not deserving of that distinction.

Craig Jones is a Vancouver lawyer and president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.