Getting a Pass on Parking Tickets in Ottawa

Update:

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Parking Meters in Ottawa. The City of Ottawa announced in 2010 that it was replacing Ottawa's 4,000 parking meters with 600 solar-powered pay and display units. Picture by Emily Chung/CBC

The soft-spoken woman in the hijab approached the bench in room 102, Ottawa’s parking court on Constellation Crescent.

“Guilty,” she responded, when asked for a plea to her ticket.

Justice of the Peace Beverly Souliere exchanged knowing looks with the prosecutor and offered some advice. “It would be to your benefit to plead ‘not guilty’.”

There was a confused pause in the court. Were ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ not opposite intentions? Barely audible, the woman said again, “guilty.”

“I’m in a sticky situation because I’m not really supposed to be helping you,” said the JP, repeating the advice to change her plea. On the third try, as directed, the woman said “not guilty.”

The confusion was about to evaporate.

The blond-haired prosecutor told the court there was no evidence to present because the officer who issued the ticket was absent. “Dismissed,” said the justice. No fine to pay; free to leave. Off she went.

This was repeated eight more times this Wednesday morning and 11 more in the afternoon, for a total of 20 dismissals. By rough calculation, a quarter of the 86 parking tickets on the docket in provincial offences court were tossed out for lack of attendance by an issuing officer. (Among the 86 were adjournments and accused no-shows.)

If we ran the criminal system this way, there would be outrage. Instead, we’re told this wink-wink arrangement is routine in parking-ticket court, generally held Wednesdays in the Centerpointe building.

(A reader reports that some weeks ago, droves of accused were asked to stand up, all at once, and given the happy verdict, “dismissed!”, because no officer was present to give evidence.)

Number of paid public spaces per 100,000 population
City20062007 2008
Thunder Bay3,2083,2082,996
Windsor2,0622,062NA
Toronto1,4141,4931,536
Hamilton1,3551,3371,345
Sudbury1,4901,2161,169
London818773813
Ottawa 750 747 775
(Source: 2008 Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative)

This is, obviously, no way to run a railroad.

Not only is the loss of revenue certainly significant, but you have well-meaning citizens — who stand accused of breaking the law — taking time off work, or school, or what-have-you, invested with their photos and prep time and Perry Mason dreams, being told it was all for naught.

Of course no one would complain. Who would complain about zero penalty for a bylaw infraction you likely committed?

Revenue per paid parking space ($)
City 2008
Toronto2,688
Ottawa2,201
London1,085
Hamilton1,021
Sudbury828
Windsor756 (2007 figures)
Thunder Bay449
(Source: 2008 Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative)

(It may seem a minor thing, but asking someone to plead ‘not guilty’ to an offence they are perfectly prepared to admit to, seems like a perverse application of a ‘justice’ system. In particular, I was left wondering whether the hijab-wearing woman, who spoke broken English, must have asked herself: ‘What kind of country is this, where yes means no?’)

Indeed, several people appeared bewildered with the change-in-plea strategy, walking from the courtroom acquitted but with barely concealed smirks, as though actors in a farce.

Justice Souliere, by the way, runs an efficient court and her skill in stickhandling 43 cases on a morning docket was evident. Her explanations to lay-accused were clear, in such a way as to demystify the process and give the ordinary sinner a fair shake. However, almost everyone who pleaded guilty with a reasonable explanation had the fine cut in half — leading one to think a formula was doing the work of sober reflection.

In any case, it is at least ironic that both Mayor Jim Watson and Premier Dalton McGuinty are complaining about the level of unpaid fines in the city and province at a time when those prepared to plead guilty — and pay up — are being turned away.

“We have to get tougher,” Watson told a meeting of the Ottawa Police Services Board in December. On the same night, the board heard Ottawa is owed $16 million in various unpaid fines, while about $1 billion is outstanding across Ontario.

Why not start, then, with reliable enforcement?

Municipal parking is big business in Ottawa. As of the end of 2010, the city managed 4,034 on-street spaces on roughly 100 streets in a dozen retail areas. Also in its inventory are 2,816 spots in 16 parking lots.

In 2010, pay-and-display machines were used almost 900,000 times. Total revenue that year was $14.4 million.

Bylaw officers write more than 300,000 parking tickets annually. Almost 75 per cent are paid within the 15-day grace period.

The city was unable to provide statistics on how many tickets are dismissed because bylaw officers are absent in court. A spokesman did say that management requires the officers to attend unless there are unforeseen circumstances such as illness or a scheduling conflict.

It is possible, too, that the absent “issuing officer” is not, in fact, a city employee, but a deputized individual who works for a private contractor patrolling areas like shopping malls.

Well, something sure is screwy. As many as one is four guilty parties are getting a free pass; all possible when justice skips its day in court.

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