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