Toronto

City cracking down on decades-old traffic fines, hoping to collect more than $100M

The City of Toronto is taking some heat for a new debt collecting strategy that some are calling heartless. Staff want to track down people with traffic fines that are more than 20 years old

New strategy is within the rules, Ontario Paralegal Association director concedes

Donna Rodrigues says she was found not guilty of driving with a suspended licence back in 1998, but the city's attempting to collect a fine from her anyway. (Mike Smee/CBC)

The City of Toronto is taking some heat for a new debt collecting strategy that some are calling heartless.

Council approved a suggestion from staff in March that they hire two collection agencies that specialize in tracking down debtors whose traffic fines are more than 20 years old — fines that city officials say add up to more than $100 million.

As well, the city will allow the private collectors to do something most city-hired collectors are not permitted to do: phone debtors as early as 7 a.m. and on weekends.

Now, people are receiving letters from those collection agencies demanding payment of fines that, in some cases, are more than two decades old and very difficult to fight against, according to Sean O'Connor, a director of the Ontario Paralegal Association.

"It's beyond heartless," he said. "Really, the collection of debts from 20 years ago is nothing more than making up for mistakes made by our elected officials today."

But he conceded the new strategy is within the rules.

'It makes me frustrated'

"They can collect the debt in perpetuity. There's no stopping them."

That's something that Donna Rodrigues is discovering: Last fall, she received a letter from a city-hired collection agency insisting that she pay a fine of $746 that was levied in 1998 for driving with a suspended licence.

Rodrigues, 64, says she went to court in 1998 and was acquitted of the charge, but she can no longer find her lawyer — and the the police officer who wrote the ticket has retired.

Because she couldn't prove her innocence, a judge last week ordered her to pay the fine, or lose her licence.

"It makes me frustrated," Rodrigues said. "I've got health problems and I have to visit doctors appointments; I cannot walk properly so its really necessary for me to have a car."

She says she'll continue to fight in the courts, and O'Connor has volunteered to help her.

He says their first step will be to try to uncover transcripts of her original 1998 court appearance.

'Getting a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito'

Rodrigues also appears to have at least one city councillor in her corner.

"Nobody keeps paperwork that far back," said Coun. Jim Karygiannis.

He's vice chair of the government and licensing committee, and told CBC Toronto he's considering drafting a motion to set time limits on fine collection.

Sean O'Connor, a paralegal, outside Old City Hall courthouse. He has volunteered to help Donna Rodrigues, provided transcripts of her case still exist. (Mike Smee/CBC)

"There's got to be a point in time that we say, 'Drop it,' and move on, and I think something like five, seven years is something we can look at.

"I think this is a matter of us getting a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito"

Staff's new strategy comes from a city auditor's report from 2018. The auditor pointed out that the city has been tasked with collecting fines levied under the Provincial Offences Act — traffic tickets — since 2002.

But at the time of the report, about $500 million in fines were outstanding.

Coun. Jim Karygiannis, vice chair of council's government and licensing committee, wants to see time limits on the city's debt-collecting efforts. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Last March, staff responded by asking council's permission to hire more collection agencies to track down the bad debts, and added a special category called third-assignment accounts — those in arrears for more than 20 years.

"The addition of this category represents a new strategy to address defaulted [Provincial Offences Act] fines that are difficult to collect," according to a staff report from February, 2019.

Susan Garossino, director of court services for the city, told CBC Toronto overdue debts have no time limit

"There is no statute of limitation on POA fines," she said. "It's the justice system that decides the administration of justice. We are tasked with enforcing the court orders."

Garossino wrote in an email there are 287,046 accounts that have been outstanding for more than 20 years. The total amount owed on those accounts: $100,856,723.25.

"Most people pay their ... fines," Garossino said.

"For the public to have trust and confidence in the justice system, they have to feel assured we're doing everything we can to enforce the court orders and that actually has a direct correlation to deterrence."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Smee

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Michael Smee has worked in print, radio, TV and online journalism for many years. You can reach him at michael.smee@cbc.ca

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