Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Trafficking in traffic tickets

Student's long wait for justice shines light on why cops are handing out so many

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Former Winnipeg police officer Len Eastoe, whose Traffic Experts business helps motorists fight traffic tickets, agrees city police are trying to bolster the city's declining revenue from photo-radar enforcement.

CRYSTAL SCHICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Former Winnipeg police officer Len Eastoe, whose Traffic Experts business helps motorists fight traffic tickets, agrees city police are trying to bolster the city's declining revenue from photo-radar enforcement. Photo Store

It was on one of those ice- and snow-rutted motoring mornings that made driving so tricky last winter, and a 21-year-old University of Manitoba student was on his way back to class, not knowing that just up ahead a city police officer was waiting.

So was a traffic ticket.

My young friend, Tim, didn't know it then, but his split-second decision not to try to brake at the slippery intersection -- and his pleading not guilty to going through a red light -- was about to introduce him to something else he hadn't been expecting to encounter down the road. Way, way down the road, actually.

Traffic-court gridlock.

This week, Tim dutifully appeared at 373 Broadway to formally enter his plea. It was April 1. And when the magistrate gave the math major his trial date, it initially sounded like an April Fool's joke.

It was set for April 2.

No, not the next day.

The next year; April 2, 2015.

The story of Manitoba's clogged court system -- and specifically, traffic court -- isn't new, but it is to people such as Tim, drivers whose only dealings with a trial are a result of believing they've been unfairly ticketed by police, as Tim does, or because they can't afford another demerit and they're fighting the ticket in hopes the cop won't show up to testify.

So what started this mudslide of tickets that, over the last decade, has all but buried traffic court?

Photo radar.

It was officially introduced to Winnipeg in 2003. A decade earlier, there was no traffic-court backlog, which is about the time former Winnipeg police officer Len Eastoe left the service and eventually opened Traffic Experts, an enterprise that helps drivers fight traffic tickets.

"When I started, we could get a trial date in three months," Eastoe told me Friday.

By 2006, within four years of red-light and speeding cams being installed at intersections and mobile photo-radar units near schools and playgrounds, there had been close to 600,000 photo-radar tickets issued. And those who chose to fight them had clogged the traffic court in such numbers trials were being delayed up to 16 months.

That's the way lawyer Scott Newman remembers it, and he has reason to.

"I took a number of different people who had these lengthy delays and I brought a delay motion," he recalled this week.

"Everyone has a constitutional right to a trial within a reasonable time," he explained. "People's memories fade."

While the courts make allowances for complex cases, traffic court can't fall back on that excuse.

"Nothing is simpler than a traffic ticket," Newman said. "Either your friend went through a red light or he didn't."

For someone to have to wait 16 months -- or even a year -- to go to trial on a traffic ticket is simply ridiculous, in Newman's opinion.

Manitoba Justice got that message after Newman brought his delay motion.

His clients' cases were stayed.

And, more importantly, in 2007 the province opened a second traffic court. For a time, the backlog eased.

Wait times were dramatically improved, as Newman remembers it -- down to six or eight months.

Why is the wait back up to a year?

Particularly since photo-radar tickets have been declining so steadily and dramatically in recent years.

Well, as photo-radar ticket-issuing declined, traditional police ticket-writing began increasing, year after year.

The answer appears obvious.

When photo radar didn't make its projected revenue numbers, city hall needed to make up the shortfall. So out went traffic cops, ticket books in hand.

"Absolutely," agreed Eastoe, the old cop turned ticket-fighter.

The historic numbers are indicative of a trend.

In 2007, city police wrote 8,747 speeding tickets. By 2011, they were handing out 22,682. The overall traditional ticketing numbers are even more telling. In 2009, police wrote nearly 57,000 traffic tickets, or about 156 per day. By 2012, they were personally issuing almost 80,000, an average of about 220 a day. That was the year police were brought in and paid overtime just to do what they refer to as traffic enforcement.

Which brings me back to my young university-student friend, his year-long wait for a trial, and, even more important to him personally, his feeling he was unfairly treated by a police officer who acknowledged Tim wasn't going over the posted speed limit, but claimed he was driving too fast for the conditions. Tim thinks the officer could have given him a break, a warning.

And he could have.

Newman and Eastoe both agreed borderline calls such as this -- and the public perception that traffic enforcement is driven by revenue more than safety -- damages police officers' image.

"It may look good on paper that you collect another couple of million in revenue, but what are you spending to do it?" Newman asked. "What's the hidden cost? What's the hidden cost to the officers? And to the public? And to everyone?"

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 B1

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