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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Still On The Hook: 1991 Ticket Haunts Canadian Tower

Here's the story from the Ottawa Citizen:

The government has a long memory. It will, happily, hound you into the next decade, or into old age, or into the grave.
In or near 2000, municipalities in Ontario took over the cataloguing of your sins, at least those covered by provincial statutes: speeding, careless driving, some alcohol offences, animal control infractions, building code boo-boos, dozens of others. As part of the download package, they inherited hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid fines, some of them going back to the 1970s.
Well, not much stands between a collection machine and new-found money. Get fined, get found.
John Webb knows it.
He's a tow-truck operator based in Innisville, a village along the Mississippi River off Highway 7, just southwest of Carleton Place.
Last week, he received an official notice in the mail. Pay up or lose your driver's licence. In fact, the letter threatened: "Your driver's licence may have already been suspended by the Court for non-payment of your fines."
The fine was for $136.25. The date of the offence? May 16, 1991.
Eighteen years later, almost to the day, the provincial offences court was still trying to collect its
money.
Here is the sticky part. Webb, 47, is quite sure he paid the fine, though he no longer has a receipt or record of payment.
In the intervening 18 years, Webb says he never received a single notice the fine was outstanding. How, he wonders, is he supposed to defend himself now?
"If they say I didn't pay it, why didn't they take my driver's licence away a long time ago?"
(The only explanation he was able to get from a collections officer in Perth is that the fine is recorded as unpaid.)
Webb remembers getting the ticket. He said he was driving back from Smiths Falls one night with a group of friends when they were stopped by OPP. A passenger had open alcohol in the car and, as the driver, he was charged under the Liquor Licence Act.
It is no trifling matter.
Webb depends on his driver's licence for his livelihood at Jack's Towing and Recovery.
A longtime truck driver, he said he only started the tow-truck business about a year ago after taking out an $80,000 loan. Clearly, as a one-man operator, he can't afford to be off the road.
"It has been 18 years. This is pitiful. And another thing: Is my licence suspended, or is it not?"
Webb said he just renewed licence plate stickers on six vehicles in April, and not a word was said about the unpaid fine. Nor was he hard to find. He has lived in the same house for 12 years.
He has appealed to area MPP Randy Hillier for help and the Conservative, who built a reputation on getting the state's pushy fingers out of the face of the ordinary man, is looking into the matter.
It is a tricky area.
Some of these fines seem to attach to the offender's driver's licence, while others do not.
(We were not joking about the dead. For 2007, the town of Perth in February forgave $31,263 in unpaid fines because the transgressors had joined the choir everlasting.)
Ken Hughes is the deputy treasurer for the city of Ottawa. It is sitting on a pile of unpaid fines totalling about $38 million. The pile never decreases too much, as old fines are paid, but new debts are added.
"It's like an inbox that never empties," Hughes said.
The city inherited the deadbeat fines in 2001.
Typically, the fines cannot be collected because the offender has moved, sometimes out of province. Strangely, Hughes said, for privacy reasons, the city cannot cross-reference a missing person with the tax rolls.
What often happens, Hughes said, is that the offender will pop into the system again -- with another speeding ticket, for instance -- and then the old fines are added to the fresh one.
"Most people say, 'I thought you'd forgotten about this'," Hughes said.
Municipalities generally have in-house collection staff, but also employ the services of outside agencies who are expert in the practice of skip-tracing.
The money is significant, with the unpaid portion across Ontario totalling $250 million or more.
Fines can be massive, too, as they cover so many different statutes. A holding company attached to high-tech mogul Michael Cowpland, for instance, had to pay a $1-million fine under the provincial securities act in 2002.
The first 25 per cent of the funds went to the province, but the remainder went into city coffers, Hughes said.
In any case, the fine demanded from Webb is surely a breach of a fundamental right to judicial fairness. At the very least, the province -- via the town of Perth -- should be required to produce documentation defending its finding of guilt and showing Webb was notified about the fine.
Better yet, it should use its discretion and forget about the whole thing.
Plain and simple, 18 years later, it's too late.

Contact Kelly Egan at 613-726-5896 or by e-mail,
kegan@thecitizen.canwest.com

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