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Minor traffic infractions a major police distraction

I drive my wife to work each morning because I like to spend as much time with her as I can. But the commute has also provided an unexpected education on modern law enforcement – and by "law enforcement" I mean "revenue collection."

Virtually every day, my wife and I see police stationed on Shaw Avenue, a quiet, tree-hung street that looks like anything but a crime hotbed. But there's always a cruiser there. Some days there are two, or even three. Their job? To issue tickets to drivers who make the mistake of going straight at the intersection just to the north. (It's illegal to go straight between 7 and 9 a.m., and 4 to 6 p.m.)

The officers on Shaw bag dozens of drivers every day. The yearly total is probably in the thousands – Shaw Avenue has become a police ATM machine. That got me thinking about my experience with the law in Toronto.

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As the son of a career army officer, I was programmed to accept authority. As a child, I thought of police as guardians – they worked the beat, protected the neighbourhood, and investigated crime. Or so I thought.

My faith began to erode about 15 years ago, when my wife and I experienced the first in a series of break-ins. Thieves kicked in the door of our garage and made off with my titanium racing bike and my mechanics tools. Considering we'd lost more than $15,000, I thought an officer would come to investigate. Such was not the case. The police took a phone report and told me to call our insurance company.

That first break-in was followed by four more. We were in the crosshairs of some determined criminals. And the police never came to our property once. I pleaded with them to fingerprint my garage, since there was an excellent chance that the thieves were repeat offenders whose prints would be in the system. The police said they didn't have time.

Our insurance was cancelled, forcing us to pay exorbitant rates for facility-pool coverage. That stung. Then I got a ticket for going straight through the intersection on Shaw between 7 and 9 a.m. The restriction sign was hidden by trees, and I didn't notice it. The officer said he had no discretion, and wrote me a ticket for $110.

Somewhere around this time, we noticed that the volume of parking tickets seemed to be on the rise. It wasn't my imagination. In 1989, the city issued 803,723 parking tickets. By 2010, the number had risen to nearly 2.8 million. In early 2008, a green hornet started ticketing our second car in the alley behind our house. where we'd parked since 1994. According to our survey, the spot was on private property.

I called the city. After being passed from department to department, I finally reached a supervisor. He showed up at our house a few weeks later. According to his measurements, my car was indeed on private property, but a few inches of it projected into the city's part of the alley. He said he'd advise the enforcement officers to back off. It worked. But not for long – the deluge of yellow tickets soon started again. We decided to sell our second car.

When I launched my driving column in 2009, I found myself with a new problem – my test cars needed a covered parking spot. I put them in my garage and borrowed parking spaces from friends for our family Honda. But there were times when nothing was available, so I paid for temporary street permits.

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After paying for one permit, I was amazed to find a ticket on our car the next morning. I checked the ticket – I had listed the first three letters of our plate number as BXF instead of BFX. I was being fined $30 (plus payment surcharges) for a typographical error.

When it came to revenue-related enforcement, the city spared no effort. Green hornets patrolled my neighbourhood every day, and everyone I knew was getting tickets for offences that were clearly calculated to raise revenue. Several friends got bagged for speeding at a spot where the limit drops unexpectedly as you come off the Don Valley Parkway. Several others got ticketed for failing to put their renewal stickers on their vehicle documents as well as their plates.

Police don't like to talk about it, but there really are quota systems. A friend on the force once admitted to me that an officer who doesn't write enough tickets is dead in the water. The emphasis on revenue and statistics leads to a particular type of enforcement: police focus on offences where they can lay a lot of charges in the least amount of time. They don't want complex investigations, evidence that can be disputed in court, or patrols that don't yield a bumper crop of tickets.

Last year, I was pulled over in a Porsche Turbo as I drove my wife to work well below the speed limit. The officer told me the front plate on the car was missing. (I'd picked up the Porsche the night before in the dark, and hadn't noticed.) As the officer wrote me up, I called Porsche. They said the plate had been removed for a photo shoot, but was in the trunk. I opened the trunk and showed it to the officer. He told me the car would have to be towed, because it wasn't legal to drive without the plate.

My wife was running late for work. She hailed a cab and left me with the police officer. He relented on the tow, but not the ticket. To dispute the ticket, I had to go to an office in downtown Toronto during office hours. I took a morning off and headed downtown with a sheaf of documents. At the enforcement office, two city vehicles were parked illegally on the street outside. (I took photos of them with my cell phone.)

Inside, I found a waiting room with bare plastic chairs and grim-looking staff who worked behind bulletproof glass partitions. I took a number and waited to be called. A harried-looking clerk made an appointment for me to return to see a prosecutor.

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I took another morning off on the appointed day, waited again, and finally saw the prosecutor. What happened next was the only thing that gave me any faith whatsoever in the traffic enforcement system. I showed the prosecutor photographs of the car, the plate, copies of the registration and the insurance documents, and explained what had happened. She dropped the charge.

I asked her why the officer couldn't have simply allowed me to bolt on the plate when he stopped me. "They're not allowed to use discretion," she told me. "I don't agree with it, but that's the way it is."

There was plenty of discretion when it came to investigating crime, though. I'd learned that the hard way with our break-ins. Then came our run-ins with fraud. In 2007, our bank account was skimmed by someone who cloned our debit card. The bank caught the activity and shut off our account, but the police never contacted us. The same thing happened when our credit card was defrauded to the tune of nearly $25,000. No investigation. In 2010, my wife and I got bills in the mail for two credit cards that we'd never applied for. Someone had taken the cards out in our name and racked up thousands of dollars in charges.

We called the police, who said they'd send an officer when one became available. When that would be, they couldn't say. I called the investigative office of our local division and told them that many of the purchases had occurred in the past few days – the perpetrators would be on the security cameras of the stores where they'd used the card (one of them was a Toronto IKEA store).

The investigative office told us they didn't have time for that, and suggested that we call the stores to get the tapes ourselves before they were erased.

The police have investigative authority that would yield the tapes. I didn't. They're paid to investigate crime. I'm not. Four days later, a police officer came to our house and took a report. We never heard from him again. We spent the next several weeks dealing with credit issues created by the fraudulent cards.

And so it goes in the big city. The 2011 Toronto police budget was more than $930-million dollars. After so many decades paying taxes and trying to obey the law, I was foolish enough to think that I might get a little investigative support for that. But I can see that I was wrong. Maybe that's because there are other priorities – like waiting for drivers to go straight on Shaw Avenue between 7 and 9 a.m. Like they say: To serve and collect.

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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More

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