Edmonton

'A big relief': Driver acquitted after Alberta judge rules Paul First Nation roads private

A Paul First Nation citizen with a driving prohibition did not break the law by driving on his community's private roads, an Alberta judge has ruled.

Terrance Adams, 46, still fears he could be arrested again

Terrance Adams was acquitted of driving while prohibited by a judge who found that the roads on Paul First Nation are private, not public. (Terrance Adams/Facebook)

A Paul First Nation citizen with a driving prohibition did not break the law by driving on his community's private roads, an Alberta judge has ruled.

The decision is a wake-up call about a law that has been "set in stone" for about 40 years, said the defence lawyer who argued the case.

"I'm hopeful that this will give the RCMP and the Crowns some food for thought on how they want to proceed with these charges, or if they're going to change their policies," lawyer James Wegener said in an interview with CBC News on Sunday.

In written reasons released this month, provincial court Judge Robert Shaigec ruled that Terrance Adams, 46, wasn't violating a court order in March when he drove through the reserve from his home to his uncle's house to pick up medication for his mother, who was ill.

Shaigec found Adams not guilty after determining the roads on the reserve are private, therefore Adams did not break the law, which applies only to public roads.

"I have a reasonable doubt as to whether the public has a 'right of access,' or is ordinarily 'entitled or permitted to use' the roads," Shaigec wrote.

Adams said it felt terrific when Shaigec pronounced him not guilty.

"It's just a big relief that everything's over and done with," he said in an interview on Sunday. 

Adams lives with his elderly parents and grandson in Paul First Nation, about 70 kilometres west of Edmonton. Since his arrest and even the recent not-guilty verdict, he has avoided driving around the reserve.

Paul First Nation is about 70 kilometres west of Edmonton. An Alberta judge ruled that the roads on the reserve are private, not public. (Google Maps)

"I really get kind of scared," Adams said. "I really don't want to go through all this again, but if I have to, well, I have to. There's just no way around it with some of the places we have to go to get medicine."

'Many people just plead guilty'

According to the written reasons for the decision, on March 4, the day Adams was arrested, he was under a prohibition enacted in February. He was driving his mother's Jeep Cherokee when he encountered RCMP Const. Jamie Bona. Bona pulled Adams over for a burned-out taillight.

A breathalyzer was administered, and Adams blew zero. When Bona ran a criminal record check, Adams's driving prohibition was discovered. He was arrested and charged. 

Wegener practises in Stony Plain, and has represented other Paul First Nation clients who have faced similar charges.

Several offences apply only to public roadways, such as distracted driving and driving without insurance. In many cases, the accused pleads guilty, or the prosecutors withdraw the charge or otherwise resolve it, Wegener said.

As a result, Wegener said he hasn't been able to test the argument that the rough, unpaved roads on Paul Band First Nation that are virtually only used by community members are, indeed, private.

"Essentially, they've just continuously been charging people with this, and many people just plead guilty," he said. "They'll lose their licence. They'll be suspended for a period of time."

He described Bona as an excellent officer who asked his superiors about the legality of charging Adams. Wegener said he's hopeful the decision will be useful for police and Paul First Nation, and that it helps improve relations going forward.

'They really have no recourse'

Shaigec did not agree that the seizure of Adams' Jeep for 30 days constituted a Charter breach. The Jeep, the family's only vehicle, was valued at $1,600. At the end of the 30 days, the impound fee was higher than the vehicle's value, so they had to abandon it.

"My reasonable doubt does not make Const. Bona's actions unreasonable," Shaigec wrote. 

Adams said losing the vehicle was a blow, and made life difficult for his family until they could scrape together enough cash for a replacement.

Shaigec acknowledged that the financial fallout to Adams and his family was "punishing," but said the circumstances did not meet the test of awarding costs against the Crown, which he said can only be done in cases of serious misconduct or extraordinary systemic failures.

Wegener agreed the cost issue is difficult, but said legal precedents that someone in Adams' circumstance should take civil action and sue the police isn't a practical route for someone living in poverty.

"I think he made the right decision, but it's disappointing in the sense that these kinds of people are being charged and they really have no recourse," he said.

About the Author

Paige Parsons is an Edmonton-based reporter and web editor. She can be reached at paige.parsons@cbc.ca.