Nova Scotia premier on defensive over drunk driving charges he faced years ago

By Canadian Press

HALIFAX — Four days after revealing he was convicted of drunk driving as a young man, Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin faced more questions Thursday about his record and whether members of his caucus had faced similar allegations.

With speculation intensifying about an imminent election call, the Liberal premier apologized again Thursday for his actions and insisted he has become a different person, having learned important lessons about the “dire impact of selfish decisions.”

“People make mistakes and lessons can be learned, and you shouldn't let mistakes in your past define you,” he said after a cabinet meeting. He recalled the “embarrassing year that my licence was suspended,” when he had to rely on friends and neighbours to drive him around.

Rankin had confirmed Monday he was convicted in September 2003 at the age of 20 of driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit. He was fined $1,200 and banned from driving for a year. He also revealed that he faced impaired driving charges two years later but was later cleared — though he provided few details about that case.

He said Thursday he has moved on from the phase when he would frequent bars until late at night. 

“I lead a professional career. I think it's inappropriate to be intoxicated while you're working. I certainly don't do that. I do enjoy a beer or two, going out to a pub. I don't abuse alcohol …. I make no excuses. In my early 20s, I drank too much.” The 38-year-old premier said he was not aware if other members of his caucus had criminal records, 

In a statement Thursday, the province's Progressive Conservatives accused Rankin of misleading Nova Scotians.

“We are sympathetic to anyone who tries to turn their life around,” the statement said. “However, the premier misled Nova Scotians regarding his second arrest for a DUI and downplayed the severity of it. It speaks to poor judgment and weak leadership.”

Rankin has said little about the second incident on July 25, 2005.

But court documents from his provincial court trial in March 2006 include witness testimony from Jim Pentecost, a 45-year old owner of a construction company. He told the court he was picking up employees in the Halifax area when he saw an oncoming car veer into his lane before swerving off the road and flipping over in the ditch. He told Judge Hughes Randall the weather was clear and dry at the time, and the sun had already come up, just before 6 a.m.

Pentecost said he called 911 and then saw the “groggy” driver crawl out of the damaged white Subaru. “I assumed he was in shock,” he testified. “I could smell alcohol on his breath …. It was noticeable.”

But Pentecost qualified his comments when asked if the driver, whom he identified as Rankin, had shown signs of impairment: “It's a fine line between being under — in shock and, you know, the signs of being impaired. But absolutely, I mean it's possible.”

He said Rankin explained he had swerved to avoid a deer. But Pentecost testified that he had not seen anything unusual on the road that morning.

Another witness, Halifax Regional Police Const. Bridgette Dunlap, said that soon after she arrived at the scene, she noticed Rankin was “thick-tongued,” slurring and smelled of alcohol. She also noticed a stamp from a local bar on his hand. Dunlap said she arrested Rankin for impaired driving, cautioned him about his rights and asked for a breath sample. 

The court documents say Dunlap witnessed two breathalyzer tests conducted within an hour at the police station. And she said she saw a certificate showing Rankin's blood-alcohol content was over the legal limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood in both tests.

Rankin was later charged with impaired driving and driving with a blood-alcohol content in excess of 80 mg.

In court, defence lawyer Stan MacDonald argued that while there was a smell of alcohol on Rankin's breath, that didn't mean an excessive amount of alcohol was in his client's bloodstream. MacDonald also argued that Rankin's behaviour was consistent with being in a state of shock.

The judge hearing the case rejected those arguments. He found Rankin guilty of impaired driving, citing the circumstances of the crash and the witness statements.

However, Rankin was declared not guilty of driving with an illegal blood-alcohol level, as the judge accepted MacDonald's argument that the police officer who arrested Rankin had failed to provide the court with an original copy of the certificate showing he had failed the breathalyzer tests.

Rankin was sentenced to 14 days in weekend custody and banned from driving for two years.

That conviction, however, was later overturned on appeal and a new trial was ordered on Jan. 9, 2007. The charge was ultimately dismissed on April 19, 2007 after the Crown offered no evidence to support its case.

The province's Public Prosecution Service has said it would not comment on why the case was dropped because that would risk arguing the case through the media. It said the Crown would have dropped the case if there was no realistic prospect of conviction or the case was not in the public interest.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2021.

Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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