Semiahmoo councillor’s impaired-driving conviction upheld

Semiahmoo First Nation councillor Joanne Charles learned last week her appeal of impaired and dangerous driving convictions has been dismissed. - File photo
Semiahmoo First Nation councillor Joanne Charles learned last week her appeal of impaired and dangerous driving convictions has been dismissed.
— image credit: File photo

A Semiahmoo First Nation councillor has lost an appeal of her convictions for impaired and dangerous driving.

Joanne Charles fought the convictions – handed down in August 2011 – on the basis that Crown lawyers did not prove she had intended to commit the offence, according to a B.C. Court of Appeal judgment rendered last week.

Charles – the spokesperson for Semiahmoo First Nation – was arrested more than 20 kilometres from her home, where she had consumed a family member’s prescription-strength pain pills and up to four ounces of whisky.

Charles testified she has no recollection of what happened between the drink and when she woke up in a jail cell.

The argument didn’t sway B.C. Appeal Court Justice Jon Sigurdson.

“The evidence clearly shows that she voluntarily and recklessly embarked on a course of ingestion of alcohol and drugs that led to her intoxication,” Sigurdson writes in his reasons for judgment posted online Thursday.

Reached by phone that afternoon, Charles initially said she had “no idea” about the matter, but upon further questions confirmed it was her case. She asked where Peace Arch News got the information.

“Why are you wanting to do anything with that?” she said. “Personally, I’d like you not to report on anything.”

Charles ended the call when told her request couldn’t be honoured.

According to the judgment, on Sept. 6, 2008 Charles was found behind the wheel of a truck that coasted to a stop on River Road after a Delta police officer tried for nearly three kilometres to get the vehicle to pull over.

The truck matched the description of a vehicle in an earlier 911 call.

When yelled at to turn the truck off, Charles “did not respond and continued to hold the steering wheel with both hands, staring straight ahead,” the judgment states.

A half-full bottle of Crown Royal whisky was among items found in the truck.

The officer demanded a breath sample and issued a 24-hour driving prohibition.

Both Charles and her sister, Kathryn Jensen, gave evidence at trial, explaining how the pair had met up “some days before” in Washington State, where Charles told her sister about “trouble she was having with her knee (which she had injured in a fall a month prior) and how much pain she was having from” abdominal cramping.

Jensen testified she gave Charles about six of the pain pills she takes for a painful condition, describing them as being “like super Extra Strength Tylenol.” The court heard the pills were, in reality, a generic form of Vicodin.

“On the day of the alleged offences, the appellant had gone to the liquor store (and) returned to her home on the Semiahoo Reservation,” the judgment states. “She… decided to look for Ibuprofen in her medicine cabinet. Instead she found the pills that her sister had given her and decided to take two. The appellant had not planned to go out that day.

“She ingested two of the pills given to her by her sister, and drank about 2.5-4.0 oz. of Crown Royal whisky. The appellant testified that she has no recollection of further events until she woke up in a jail cell.”

Jensen told the court she did not know the pills shouldn’t be taken with alcohol and that she did not tell Charles that the pills were prescription medication.

An expert witness testified that mixing the two causes a “severe” reaction, with symptoms ranging from drowsiness to confusion.

“He testified that if this drug is taken with any alcohol, 4 oz. of alcohol will be additive or super-additive to those effects, and could cause ‘coma, severe mental confusion, drowsiness and dizziness, and lack of memory,’” Sigurdson writes.

At trial, Charles submitted that her driving and impairment were involuntary, and that she’d had no intention of driving after consuming the pills and whisky. She also testified she previously had taken Tylenol, with dinner and a drink, and “nothing had happened.”

The trial judge found that “she alone decided to consume the pills and a very significant amount of alcohol.

“No one forced her or secretly caused her to do so,” he ruled. “She also took a number of steps which clearly establishes she formed the intention to drive… sitting in the driver’s seat, turning the vehicle on, putting it in gear, and physically manipulating the brake, accelerator and steering wheel to drive the vehicle for an extended period of time.

“She may not have initially planned to drive, but on the evidence she clearly changed those plans following her consumption of the pills and alcohol. Her supposed inability to remember, likely due to her advanced state of intoxication, is really of no assistance and does not in any way bring into question this evidence which proves her intention to drive her vehicle after consuming the pills and alcohol.”

The trial judge did not accept that Charles didn’t realize the pills were strong, nor that she didn’t believe they were prescription-strength. She knew her sister used the pills to manage pain from trigeminal neuralgia, “the most painful medical disease known to the medical community.”

Charles was handed fines totalling $2,012.50 and two one-year driving prohibitions.

While Sigurdson found the trial judge erred in noting that anything stronger than Extra Strength Tylenol requires a prescription, Crown Christina Godlewska argued the error is irrelevant and the fact Charles took the pills then drank alcohol “in itself is enough to constitute recklessness,” the judgment notes.

“Merely not remembering is not a defence in the circumstances,” Sigurdson agreed.


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