New Brunswick beer ruling farce continues

New Brunswick's contentious liquor import rule is not only unenforceable, it has been dormant for decades

BELLEVILLE, Ont. May 26, 2016/ Troy Media/ – “The law is still the law,” said New Brunswick Public Safety Minister Stephen Horsman recently. He was commenting on whether police would continue to enforce the province’s prohibition on individuals bringing more than a nominal amount of beer, wine or liquor into New Brunswick from neighbouring provinces.

His somewhat cryptic statement follows the recent decision of provincial court Judge Ronald LeBlanc, who acquitted Gerard Comeau of an offence under section 134(b) of New Brunswick’s Liquor Control Act and pronounced the section unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, an RCMP spokesman told the CBC that “the force is studying the decision ‘in conjunction with’ Crown prosecutors” before announcing if they will continue to enforce the law.

Commentators have reacted with surprise and disapproval at this possible plan to ignore the decision of the court, and thereby ignore the rule of law.

What everyone seems to overlook is the fact that, except for Comeau and 16 others who were charged within a two-day period in October 2012, section 134(b) is not enforced. Although it has been on the books for more than four decades, it routinely goes unenforced, and New Brunswickers violate it daily without any consequences.

In August 2015, I had the privilege of assisting defence lawyers Arnold Schwisberg and Mikael Bernard at Comeau’s four-day trial in Campbellton, N.B. I took detailed notes of the evidence and have a copy of the official trial transcript.

The evidence of RCMP Const. Guy Savoie was that the operation under which Comeau and the 16 others were charged was a one-time project initiated by his team leader within the Campbellton detachment. Every team had been asked to “initiate a project for crime reduction purposes,” Savoie testified. His team, curiously, chose the liquor sting project.

But the project lasted only two days, “and since then we were instructed not to conduct it again,” he testified. In short, the project was “a singular operation that took place over a two-day period . . . and not before or since [was he] aware of any similar operation initiated by the RCMP.”

Campbellton is on the northern border of the province, with a bridge across the Restigouche River linking it directly to Pointe-a-la-Croix, Que., and the First Nation community Listuguj. It takes about two minutes to drive across the bridge, where among the first buildings you see are the SAQ (Societe des alcools du Quebec) on the Quebec side and Wysote’s Convenience Store on the reserve. The former sells liquor and wine; the latter sells win and beer.

It’s no wonder that the RCMP decided to cancel the sting operation after only two days. Residents of Campbellton were outraged when they learned of it. For one thing, they feared alienating their Quebec neighbours who frequently cross the bridge to do business in Campbellton. For another, they thought the RCMP might make better use of its “crime reduction” resources than enforcing the provincial government’s high-priced alcohol monopoly. But perhaps most importantly, a huge percentage of them have done exactly what Comeau did. (I’ll bet even the Campbellton cops buy their alcohol on the Quebec side.)

Another witness at the trial, private investigator John Buckingham, was retained by the defence to determine just how often New Brunswickers crossed the bridge with Quebec-purchased alcohol. He testified that he had observed the parking lots of the alcohol outlets on the Quebec side of the bridge on six occasions during August 2015. He also spoke to employees of the stores. His conclusion was that two-thirds or more of the customers were from New Brunswick and that 90 per cent of the convenience store’s floor space was devoted to beer sales.

So the furor over whether to ‘continue’ enforcing section 134(b) is a farce. It never has been enforced except on one occasion, and then it was ruled unconstitutional. New Brunswick officials should bow to that reality.

And if those same government leaders really want to keep liquor sales within the province, they’ll have to lower the ridiculous taxes they impose on it.

Karen Selick is a lawyer and commentator.

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