What Would It Take to Make you Plead Guilty? Alberta Revamps Traffic Court

What would it take to make you plead guilty to a crime you didn’t commit?  One hundred dollars?  One thousand dollars?  Need more information?

Okay, what if the crime isn’t serious?  And if you plead guilty you can avoid the hassle of driving downtown, parking in an expensive lot, going through airport-style security and lollygagging around in the court house waiting to file your not guilty plea?  Still not sure?

Well how about this?  If you exercise your right to plead not guilty and the judge finds you guilty, your fine will double.  Does that make a difference?

You bet it does.  You’ve just been coerced into pleading guilty by the threat of extra punishment if you dare to plead not guilty.  And that, my friends, is a violation of a bedrock principle of criminal justice—the right to a fair trial.

The Justice Minister, Jonathan Denis, doesn’t see it this way.  In his mind this perversion of your right to a fair trial is nothing more than a “discount”; no different than paying a parking ticket early to save a few bucks.*

This is absolute nonsense.  A parking ticket is issued when you’ve overstayed your parking.  You know you’re guilty.  It’s simply a matter of when you’re going to pay the fine.  In the traffic court case, you think you might be innocent and you want to fight the charge.  But the Justice Minister is going to punish you if you got it wrong.

The underlying rationale

Mr Denis says he wants to save money and clear the gridlock in traffic court by moving traffic court out of downtown Calgary and Edmonton to who knows where.  He’s concerned about the poor schmucks who have to find their way downtown, pay for parking, fight their way through court house security and long queues in order to pay fines or enter not guilty pleas.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if Mr Denis’ colleague, Health Minister Horne, had the same desire to help us avoid the gridlock in the ER and the queues for surgery?  But I digress.

I’m all for saving money, but there’s only one reason to penalize Albertans for exercising their right to a fair trial and that’s to reduce the number of cases coming before a traffic court judge.  If you can reduce the number of cases you can reduce the number of judges, court rooms, prosecutors and administrators, sound familiar?

Charlie Pester, a former police officer who represents defendants in traffic court, is worried that the government will replace traffic court judges with administrative tribunals that aren’t bound by the rules of evidence.*

Wildrose MLA, Heather Forsythe is also concerned.  She asked the Justice Minister to confirm whether his ADM told traffic prosecutors that the government would reduce or eliminate traffic courts and traffic prosecutors.** He gave the classic lawyer’s response:  “…to the best of my knowledge there is no such plan being considered at this juncture”—which means that at tomorrow’s juncture, there may indeed be such a plan.

This isn’t a trivial concern.  The government can eliminate judges, prosecutors and defence counsel in a heartbeat by expanding the powers of the Alberta Traffic Safety Board, an administrative tribunal already in existence under the Traffic Safety Act.

A tempest in a teapot?

At this point you’re thinking, what’s the big deal?  This is traffic court! 

Right, and there’s the rub.  The Traffic Safety Act is a complex piece of legislation with over 200 sections that cross reference other statutes including the National Defence Act and the Criminal Code.  The Justice Minister says 218,000 criminal charges and 1.9 million traffic violations have issued under the Act.***

The Alberta Traffic Safety Board has tremendous power.  It can hold you in contempt or issue a bench warrant if you fail to show up (section 29).  Both will land you in jail.  It can suspend or permanently revoke your licence (s 30 and 31).  This can impair your ability to earn a living.

A factor the Board will consider when deciding whether to suspend or revoke your licence is your past conviction record (s 33) – that would be all those times you decided to plead guilty in order to avoid the hassle of driving downtown, parking in an expensive lot, getting through security and waiting in line to plead not guilty.

And depending on the charge you could face a fine of up to $25,000 and, if you fail to pay, 6 months in prison.  

Lastly, and most importantly, the Board’s decision is final and not subject to appeal (s 47).

Guilty is not always guilty

The Traffic Safety Act lets a judge (assuming he’s still there) find you innocent even if you’re guilty if you can show the offence couldn’t be avoided (s 161).  My daughter was ticketed for being in an intersection on a red light.  She couldn’t complete a left turn because a pedestrian steamed into the crosswalk against the “don’t walk” light.  My daughter disputed the offence before a traffic court judge.  Her evidence was the traffic camera photo that showed her car in the intersection and the pedestrian stopped dead in the cross walk yelling like a lunatic.  The judge found her not guilty.  Would my daughter have bothered to fight the charge and risk a substantially higher fine if she lost?

The Roman philosopher Seneca said “Every guilty person is his own hangman”.  What kind of Justice Minister coerces innocent Albertans into pleading guilty and hanging themselves simply to save a few bucks?

*Calgary Herald, Mar 20, A9

**Hansard, Mar 13, 2013, p 1548

***Hansard, Mar 18, 2013, p 1631

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18 Responses to What Would It Take to Make you Plead Guilty? Alberta Revamps Traffic Court

  1. Phil Elder says:

    This initiative is shocking and surely can be challenged as offending the Charter of Rights. Thanks for pointing this out, Susan.

  2. Rose Marie MacKenzie-Kirkwood says:

    I am finding that the norm these days seems to be to “disguise the truth”. Our cable system tried the same tactic a few years ago; their sales pitch was they were increasing all the available channels you could now get. They sent out an informative pamphlet telling the public about all the new channels available to us. What they put in the very small fine print at the bottom of the back page was that you would automatically get these channels (and be billed the additional fee) unless you return the form indicating that you DID NOT want the service. We all read the brochure and thought the obvious, “if you want it you ask for it.” It was not until our bills arrived and we called the cable people to complain about the billing that we were told “WE neglected to send back our request to NOT opt for the additional channels.”

    The TV and media governing body declared that this was an unfair practice, by the cable companies, so if it is unfair for the private industry why are the rules now changed for the government.

    • Great analogy Rose Marie. It’s all in the fine print and the government is hoping that we’re too busy or disinterested to find it. This latest stunt by the Justice Minister stunned me. First he announces that a crime isn’t really a crime unless you do it three times, then he comes out with the idea that the penalty for violating the Traffic Safety Act is lower if you admit guilt and higher if you don’t. Justice doesn’t have a price tag….or at least it didn’t until the PC Justice Minister got ahold of it.

  3. Carlos Beca says:

    Well the spin world is unravelling and I for one am as happy as possible. I will play the fiddle when Alison Redford’s Crystal Palace crumbles. At 29% and going down, she will not make the leadereship review and like I predicted she will be toast soon. I will bring the rice to through at the farewell party. Running a province like Alberta with this level of mediocrity is appaling and hard to believe.
    What you describe in your article is news to me but not surprising. As I said in previous comments, I do not believe we have a Justice System.
    What is most amazing to me is that we do not see more political radicalism in this province. Alison’s competitors are now all cuddly with big oil making enough in bonuses to stay away and witness the shrinking of another premier.

    • Now there’s a great question…why isn’t there more political radicalism or at least political activism in Alberta? The opposition parties have been trying to answer that question for decades. Seems to me the answer is a combination of things. On the one hand people are so busy with their day-to-day lives that they don’t have the energy to pay attention to what the government is up to; on the other hand those who do take an interest get ground down by their inability to influence the government’s actions. Having said all that I think that the PC government is in trouble. As you point out, the Premier’s approval rating has tanked and her government is in trouble. We’ll have an opportunity to oust the PCs in the next election if we can get more people mobilized.

  4. carlosbeca says:

    I meant to throw and not through — geee I need some chocolate soon.

  5. midgelambert says:

    Really really bad stuff, for sure.

    Why isn’t there more political activisim in this province? I think that along with the combination of things you mention – the busyness, the apathy – I would also include the complacency of a strong consumer oriented society, and most of all, fear, when faced with a 41 year entrenched, embedded, and nepotistic political machine that will do ANYTHING to keep its strangle hold on a province that they view as their own personal private empire. The politics of fear that they promote makes many people hesitate to do anything, because the machine is everywhere, woven into every system that runs our province.

    I’ve lived here all my life and I must say that this is not the place I thought it could be. Shameful!!

    • Midge, you’re right about the politics of fear…I’ve talked to people about issues ranging from healthcare to the administration of justice and am astounded by their reluctance to speak out. But when you consider the power this party has to damage their livelihoods, it’s understandable. The only way to break the government’s stranglehold on democracy is to take action. I have the highest respect for the Albertans who’ve taken to the streets—students, professors, pharmacists, nurses—in protest against these short sighted budget cuts.

  6. Liz A. says:

    What a timely column for me, as earlier today I grudgingly paid $103 for my first (and hopefully last) photo radar ticket. I paid it by credit card, by phoning the Edmonton Court House (780-427-5913) and saved myself the additional service fee, of $9 + GST, had I had used their online system. Regarding the ticket, I have simply no defence, as neither my husband nor I have any recollection of travelling that day through that particular junction at 11 am, as is stated on the ticket. I elected to pay it, rather than face the hassle of appealing it, with what seems like a rather weak argument. However, over a year ago I was stopped by an overly officious (and aggressive) police officer and ticketed for speeding close to my home. I challenged that ticket in court and the police officer withdrew the charge, in chambers. (I had been looking forward to addressing the officer under oath, so I was somewhat disappointed that she chose to drop the charge!) I was confident that I was going to win, so I really had nothing to lose and perhaps that explains the officer’s decision to drop the charge entirely.

    • Liz, your officious officer story is exactly why this idiotic proposal has to be stopped (and good on you for fighting it!). The problem with the PC government is that it’s trying to run the government like a private sector business. Justice Minister Denis even used the language of business in Committee when he was defending his budget. He said: “Our budget allows us to balance more demand by focusing our core businesses and integrating services”. In this case the demand ie. people who’ve received citations under the Traffic Safety Act exceeds the supply of judges, prosecutors, and court rooms. Since he doesn’t have any more money to put into hiring more judges, etc, his solution is to decrease the demand by penalizing those who want to plead not guilty. And this is the man Albertans elected to safeguard the administration of justice. Shameful!

  7. Johnny says:

    I hope this is not completely off topic; I will try to explain why I find this article and the ensuing comments practically unimportant (important indeed they are only when legal aesthetics is concerned). I will try to be terse. I am a foreigner and knew nothing and still know very little about the Canadian way of delivering justice in traffic violation matters. My experience was this: I was fined for disobeying a sign under a provincial legal enactment (HTA). The sign I had unintentionally breached was impossibly confusing, and so I decided to contest the whole thing at a traffic court. There, full nine (!) months later, I said, in effect: “Provincial Act states that the very type of traffic sign in question must be obeyed if erected in accordance with a Regulation X. Regulation X prescribes minimum dimensions (symbols, fonts, spaces btw. lines etc.) of this type of sign, which the actual sign did not conform to. It follows that the sign is not legally binding on motorists.” The JOP shrugged his shoulder and uttered: “I don’t know… if you say the sign is not binding, take it to a proper court.” So after having to schedule the court in person (150 CAD in expenses) and showing up at the trial (150 CAD) I was found guilty (110 CAD) without having heard a legal argument refuting my defence. On top of it all there is no tradition in Canada of issuing written decision and so I had to buy a transcript (100 CAD) to believe what just happened. I should also mention that the prosecutor did all she could to have me avoid the trial – from promising to re-qualify my trespass to a municipal infraction (50 bucks) or even parking infraction (30 bucks fine), to threats of imposition of a 500 dollar fine if I refuse these compromises (a fairly undemocratic element in my view).
    In the country of my origin I am a lawyer and none of this is acceptable even for minor offences trials. A written mailed in defence is accepted and assessed and of course the judge (legally educated person, who doesn’t give you a blank face when you inquire about whether questions of fact and law are both dealt with in front of the court) must refute your argument or explain why it will not hold water in order to find you guilty; a decision must be made in writing if you are convicted etc. The system is not design to deplete your time, energy and money.
    While I do understand the sentiments of the people above who try to invoke the concept of rights (to a fair trial or whatever), in theory the Canadian traffic court system has so many elements of farce that adding one more makes no difference. At least surcharging those who lose their case would now be an officially admitted reality, not one that you have to discover along the way anyhow. And Canadians should want to be treated as adults.

    • Johnny, I had hoped that there was still a shred of justice left in our justice system, however your experience indicates otherwise. It sounds like you faced the “perfect storm”–a judge who didn’t know or care about his role, a prosecutor intent on speeding things along (to the point where she threatened to impose an additional penalty if you refused to accept her compromise) and a bureaucratic system that doesn’t provide written decisions thereby hampering your ability to appeal the decision. This is stunning in a country that prides itself on being the standard bearer for justice. We must continue to tell our stories so that others will understand the depths to which we’ve fallen. I am working with some of the progressive parties here in Alberta to see if we can collectively find a way to unseat the PCs without at the same time allowing our government to fall into the hands of the WR. It will be a long hard slog but, as David Swann Liberal MLA once told me “Despair is not an option”.
      Thank you for sharing your story Johnny. Please continue to do so.

      • Johnny says:

        Thank you, Susan, for such a kind response to my semi-lettered post. When I shared my experience with my Canadian friends (and girlfriend), I would receive the “There are worse things in life” response, which might be true but not really helpful.
        One last thing that in my experience contrasted Canada’s reputation as a modern democracy: At one point in the trial a Bible was put in front of me and it was suggested to me that I swear on the book. I have nothing against people’s various faiths (so long as they do not turn “turbo” about them), but how does this comply with the idea of a secular state? Anyhow, this is just an observation that surprises a foreigner but comes as natural to a citizen.
        Thanks again and keep up the noble work.
        J.

      • You’re very welcome. It’s very helpful to hear from someone with a broader perspective. Our provincial and federal governments foist these changes upon us one small step at a time. We need people like you to point out how undemocratic they really are. Please feel free to comment whenever the spirit moves you.

  8. Pingback: Alberta’s “Traffic Court Reform”: One Step Closer to a Police State | Susan on the Soapbox

  9. Derek says:

    I have only been in alberta for three years, and I have not ever voted. With this introduaction of the changes to the traffic safety act, I wiil. NOt for our current leaders.

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