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Police, tickets and the perils of good intentions

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Remind me: What's the road to heck paved with again?

And it's this, dear reader, that's the sad reality/fallout from the latest Winnipeg story about police officers, tickets and the discretion they're entitled to use when doling them out to the citizenry. There've been a few of late. (here, and here, for examples.)

Currently, local (and even not so local) social media is in a bit of a froth over an interaction a group of males had with general patrol officers near Portage Place mall on Portage Avenue. It was Wednesday, around 11 a.m., if the documentation is correct.

As I can tell from online and some news reports, the story goes like this: The group is walking side-by-side down the sidewalk when all of a sudden, officers appear and hand one of them a ticket under the Highway Traffic Act for walking more than two abreast — s. 143(2).

(Picture, sourced from Facebook, of said ticket is attached to this report).

Keeping left and walking two abreast

143(2)      Any pedestrian proceeding along a highway where no sidewalk is provided or where the sidewalk is not passable, shall walk as closely as is practicable to

(a) the left-hand edge of the roadway or of the shoulder, as the case may be; or

(b) any person who may be walking on his left side;

but persons walking on a roadway shall not walk more than two abreast.

Now, a reading of this HTA section shows that the ticket handed out was bound to go nowhere in court.
But in any event, a friend of the ticket-bearer raises a stink, calling it a "cheap and cheesey (sic) way to fill quota and make money!!!"

The Facebook post is widely shared, and picked up by at least one mainstream media outlet.

Police responded to them by saying the wrong offence was cited and a new ticket was issued.
They wouldn't say what the new offence was.

Their response captured my interest, so I made a few quiet inquiries with sources. 

And as it turns out, they say there's a lot missing from the story. 

They explained:

Yes, general patrol officers approached the group as they walked down the street.

However, just before this, one of them had been spotted with a can of beer in his hand.

Eye contact was made between the can-holder and police, and a surreptitious effort to stash the can and move on was made, according to my sources. 

A discussion was had, and an initial denial about having the beer was made, my sources tell me.
Then came an admission and an apology to the officer for the fib, I'm told.

The officer considered writing an appropriate ticket under the relatively new Liquor and Gaming Control Act.

No consumption in public place

57(1)       Except as permitted under this Act, a person must not consume liquor in a public place.

This is a class "H" offence in Manitoba's Brown Book, meaning the fine is a hefty $673.75.

The officers clearly felt some compassion for the guy because of the sticker shock, and elected to use their discretion to find a lesser offence that provided a penalty in line with the true nature and character of the infraction, my sources say.

That wound up being the HTA 143(2) offence, a class "A" category (the lowest) in the Brown Book - totalling $113.10. (I won't harp on about the legal chances of the tag sticking in court).

And that was that - at least until the social media/media-fuelled backlash began.

After a review of the situation, the original ticket was ripped up and the more expensive (and appropriate) one handed out in its place, I'm told.

There are a few things at play here that bug me, but I'll simply list two for now.

We expect police to *police* our downtown. When they're perceived to not be doing this, we're generally quick to point fingers.

Clearly, one of the problems that's plagued the area and its safety is open liquor and people being drunk in public.

So, here we have police proactively addressing the situation while trying to use some compassion about it. And it all blows up on them.

The officers are made to look like the bad guys, the quota-hungry, feckless ticket-mongers. Yet, clearly, that's not the case here in light of all the circumstances, not just the ones people conveniently pick and choose to disclose. 

The other issue I have is that now, there are two officers on the force who may be forever disinclined to use their discretion as the situation sees fit.

And that's not cool, because that discretion is a necessary part of police work.

In fact, it could lead now to citizens seeing them exactly as they've been falsely portrayed.

And that's just a shame.



[EDIT: SUNDAY, 18/05/2014 — fixes grammar]  

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About James Turner

James Turner rejoined the Free Press as a justice-beat reporter in August 2013 after a number of years away working at other media outlets, including the Winnipeg Sun and CBC Manitoba.

A reporter in Winnipeg since 2005, he got his first taste of the justice beat as a former Free Press intern, then as the newspaper's police reporter from 2008-09.

Among the topics he's eager to cover are youth crime, street gangs, child-welfare and how the mental health and justice systems intersect.

An avid blogger and early adopter of Twitter, James (@heyjturner) loves to write long, much to the frustration of his editors.

He despises animal cruelty. He loves 80s music and his tubby labrador retriever.


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