Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bad law is really taxing

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Life would be a lot easier if we could somehow do away with refrigerator magnets and police photo radar and red-light cameras.

In most homes, refrigerators seem to be constantly covered with messages attached by little magnets in the shape of Yogi Bear or some other dismal cartoon-character as a reminder of just how bleak your childhood really was. None of these message is ever good news.

You don't find a note from your wife: "Hi, Honey: I've just run out to get you a bottle of vodka," or from your daughters saying, "Dear Dad: We're gone for the weekend so the TV is all yours and we baked an apple pie that's in the fridge for you."

Instead, the messages attached to the door of doom remind you of an impending appointment with the doctor that will at best involve considerable personal indignities, at worst intense personal pain.

Or they might remind you that your insurance premium is due, you haven't paid the water bill and the milkman is still patiently waiting for his money.

Or there will be a list of chores -- a "must-do" list of things that involve at best a great deal of tedium, at worst domestic torture and physical fatigue possibly leading to death -- those driveways don't shovel themselves, old-timer.

If your refrigerator is like mine, you may also see occasionally -- but always more often than you want -- pictures of your family's automobiles courtesy of the City of Winnipeg, a reminder that Big Brother's dumber cousin is watching you. They are fuzzy black and white photos alleging to show your car doing things that you would not normally think it would do, like speeding or going through red lights, and right below the photograph is a figure showing how much you are going to have to pay for this experience. You will look at least twice at the price because whatever it is, it is way more than this picture is worth to anyone but a Winnipeg traffic court judge.

My household at the moment is comprised of three cars and a bus pass. Two of the cars are driven by young women who have more energy than is probably good for them and one by a youngish woman is fortunately finally starting to settle down. We don't get these summons to so-called justice very often, perhaps because I don't drive at all, but they appear often enough that I continue on a pretty frequent basis to wonder why such unfair and morally indefensible laws can be allowed to continue.

I am not talking here about the fuss over the Grant Park school teachers and others who were caught at Grant and Nathaniel. The victims claim that the radar there is off kilter, the police say it's not. They can sort that out in court.

I don't doubt -- at least I don't doubt very much -- that the photo radar and red light tickets that come to my house are legitimate. The car probably was speeding or a nano-second slow in entering an intersection. That's neither the problem nor the principle.

The problem is that the police can't know who was driving the car -- they would actually have to do some police work for that -- and because they can't ticket anybody, they accuse the car. Or, more precisely, they ticket the owner of the car, even though he might have been in Bentonville at the time.

This is an antiquated principle of law. It is called deodand, and allows that if no one can be held responsible for a crime, the object itself can be charged. So if you had a horse and your neighbour's dog frightened it and it bolted and knocked over your other neighbour's garden gnome, both the dog and horse could be charged, but you would have to pay the fine because you own the horse.

A law that makes a person responsible for what his property does without his knowledge is hardly a fair law and one wonders why it remains on the books. Former city councillor and mayoral candidate Peter Kaufmann thinks he knows the reason why. "The city is in a revenue mode," gathering in as much money as it can. "Photo radar is a tax," although the city won't say that because the mayor and the council don't like to use the "T-word."

Critics of photo radar demand that the traffic watch go back to real policing, that cops do the traffic patrols, so that drivers can be charged instead of vehicles -- it is really hard to get an automobile to show up in traffic court.

But the police, legitimately, say they have better things to do, more important crimes to fight than illegal left turns. And in any case, if that were to happen, one suspects that city would regulate the streets to a standstill.

At St. Mary's Road and River Road, there is a no-left-turn sign that makes no sense except as a cash cow for the city. Police are frequently there in the morning pulling over rush-hour drivers who haven't seen the sign; and why would they even look -- they are already in a turning lane across a street where there is hardly any traffic.

Kaufmann thinks that was a purely political decision to satisfy grumpy River Road voters who don't like passing traffic. But how do you explain that three mornings this week during rush hour, a police car and cops with a radar gun were sitting near Broadway and Osborne watching the traffic inch along? If that's what the city calls more important policing, perhaps we could get rid of the red light cameras and a few refrigerator magnets.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2011 A19

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