A pilot project could have jailed N.L. drivers for unpaid fines. Here's how that went
Plan targeting top scofflaws ‘did not have the greatest results,’ justice minister says
The judge raised an eyebrow when he looked at the file.
"This has a very long history," he said.
That was an understatement.
It was a January morning at provincial court in St. John's, and the application before the judge dated back nearly four years, all the way to early 2015.
The province alleged that a man — referred to as Debtor No. 2 in government briefing notes — owed more than $16,500 in unpaid traffic fines.
And the Crown had taken a novel approach to go after the money.
Pay up, or go to jail.
"In the event this honourable court finds that the respondent has, without reasonable excuse, refused to pay the fine or fines, the province asks that the court issue a warrant of committal for imprisonment," government lawyers wrote in a 2016 court filing.
"The minimum period of imprisonment which may be ordered in default of payment of the fines is 330 days."
But that didn't happen. The case spent years in the system, but never got to a full hearing.
Finally, on that morning this January — after more than two dozen court dates, spanning nearly four years — the Crown withdrew its application against Debtor No. 2, along with criminal charges against him for failing to appear in court.
"So he's got nothing to do here anymore," the judge noted.
That pulled down the curtain on a provincial pilot project aimed at finding a way to deal with scofflaw drivers — essentially, forcing people with big outstanding fines to appear in court, and threatening them with jail if they don't pay up.
That initiative was launched nearly five years earlier, without fanfare.
It ended much the same way.
Over the years, the province was reticent to disclose information about the project.
But CBC News tracked the progress of the four test cases over a span of years, identifying them through a combination of access-to-information requests and sleuthing through public court records.
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons inherited the project from the previous administration, and allowed it to proceed after he took over the portfolio.
It was very time-consuming. It was very resource-heavy. And, at the end of the day, you weren't recovering much of anything, which defeats the whole purpose.- Justice Minister Andrew Parsons
He now acknowledges it didn't work out.
"That one was ongoing when I first came into office and did not have the greatest results," Parsons said.
"I wouldn't call it a successful project."
He says the pilot project failed to recoup cash that was owing. No one went to jail.
"It was very time-consuming. It was very resource-heavy. And, at the end of the day, you weren't recovering much of anything, which defeats the whole purpose."
Parsons added, "It had some momentum and died a very slow, unnoticeable death."
Now, the focus is on the future, and a new pilot project to allow people owing large amounts of fines to pay off their debts through community work.
But here's the story of what happened in the past.
Auditor general examined the issue
In January 2014, Newfoundland and Labrador's auditor general put the fines administration division of the Department of Justice under the microscope.
According to the AG, there was more than $37 million owing in provincial fines, most of it uncollectible.
"There are a large number of accounts with significant balances which have grown over the past five years," Auditor General Terry Paddon wrote.
His review found that "the department is not collecting amounts owed in a timely manner and balances are getting older."
According to Paddon's report, the number of people owing more than $20,000 had doubled in the previous five years.
He recommended an array of options for the province to improve collection efforts.
Exit the AG, enter justice officials.
They chose an option not mentioned by the AG.
A provincial government briefing note explains what happened next.
Justice department, RNC discussed options in 2014
The Department of Justice outlined its efforts to Parsons in December 2015, as the Liberals prepared to take office from the departing Tories.
Here's what the incoming justice minister was told.
Officials met in 2014 and 2015 to discuss options on how best to address the issue of outstanding fines.
They decided to use a section of the Criminal Code to seek a warrant of committal as "an alternate and the most efficient means presently available of dealing with delinquent debtors."
Section 734.7 of the code "provides a mechanism to compel persons with unpaid fines to appear before court where the time allotted for the payment of fines has expired."
The court could then issue a warrant ordering someone to serve a period of imprisonment in default of paying the cash, if certain conditions were met.
The fines administration division identified about 60 people who owed a total of $1.1 million and had "not been co-operative with respect to the payment of outstanding fines, or who could not be located."
The Department of Justice assigned a lawyer, and the RNC agreed to help find them, and serve them with court documents.
Provincial court set aside a number of hearing dates "to ensure that these individuals could be brought before the same judge, so that the process would be streamlined and consistent."
They selected four people who owed money for the pilot project.
4 cases in pilot project
According to the briefing note, the province gave up on Debtor No. 1 in 2015, after that person was incarcerated in a federal prison.
That left a troika of other cases in the pilot project.
Where the briefing note ends, the paper trail in court begins.
The case of Debtor No. 4 was resolved the quickest of the remaining three.
Debtor No. 4, a now 40-year-old woman from the St. John's area, had 36 fines issued against her under the Highway Traffic Act, totalling more than $39,000. As of September 2015, $29,000 of that amount remained outstanding.
She had been caught driving without insurance nine times, and driving without a licence on 11 separate occasions.
According to court documents, she faced up to 675 days of incarceration for unpaid fines and surcharges.
After eight months and nine court appearances, the Crown agreed to withdraw its application against her in May 2016.
The case against Debtor No. 3 was resolved nearly as swiftly.
That now 43-year-old man had 26 unpaid tickets, with one dating all the way back to 1993.
Nine were for driving without insurance, and he had a dozen convictions for driving without a licence.
From 2004 to 2009, the sheriff's office had some success garnishing his income, but after that, they had trouble locating him or tracking down where he was working.
In a 2016 court application, the Crown sought 286 days' imprisonment. At the time, Debtor No. 3 owed around $10,000.
A year after the province first took Debtor No. 3 to court — and more than a dozen court dates — the Crown told the judge it had resolved the matter and reached a payment agreement. That was in September 2016.
Three down, one to go.
But it would take another two-plus years for the last test case to finally conclude, when the Crown withdrew proceedings against Debtor No. 2, in January 2019.
'Not worth the time and effort'
The justice minister's verdict today?
"It just was not worth the time and effort," Parsons said.
He stresses that the genesis of the idea predated his time in the portfolio, and he's not sure how it got started.
But he notes that the issue of unpaid fines is one that has "plagued governments for years and years and years."
It's currently a $40-million problem.
About three-quarters of that is "historical debt" that could go back decades. And the cash is owed not just for driving-related offences, but also things like contraband tobacco fines.
Parsons has higher hopes for the next option under consideration: trying out community work in lieu of payment.
He says that pilot project is expected to get going this fall.
"I don't think putting this person in jail is going to do anything. We don't get any money back. It's costing us money. And how does that benefit anybody?" Parsons said.
"We have organizations and groups out there that could benefit from effort, from work. And so we're going to try it. And to me, it's nothing ventured, nothing gained."