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Challenging Transit Fines

Scott Meyer (2L)

Last September, I was fined $250 for failing to provide a ‘valid proof of payment’ while riding the LRT. Unbeknownst to me, I didn’t have my ONEcard/U-Pass with me, and the transit officer would not allow me to show my Bear Tracks payment in lieu of my U-Pass.

I was stunned by the size of the fine: $250 for the simple act of forgetting my student ID seemed more than a little disproportionate. However, with only one week of law school under my belt, I decided to wait and see if anything in the first-year syllabus would offer a solution to my problem.

Foundations eventually provided me with an answer. Using the well-worn principles of statutory interpretation, it seemed clear to me that the rather ambiguous bylaw under which I was charged should allow for Bear Tracks, or another form of online payment, to be considered as a valid proof of payment.  Additionally, the $250 fine was designed to punish individuals who wilfully evade the transit fare, something a student physically cannot do.

With these principles in hand, along with some useful pregame advice from my Student Legal Service compatriots, I headed off to court. Before my trial, I discussed the charge with the prosecutor. Considering the sheer size of the docket, in conjunction with the length of time it would take for me to make my argument before the Court, the prosecutor simply retorted, “Well, that’s a great argument, but unfortunately you’re not going to be able to make it today, as I would rather just withdraw the charges.” I could not have been more relieved.

As I walked out of the courtroom however, I became convinced that the process surrounding these fines had to change. Imagine the stress suffered by low-income post-secondary students faced with these fines. Most students don’t have 250 disposable dollars for a transit fine—they’re using that money to pay for food, rent, clothing, and hopefully a night out every now and then to relax. I can’t see how dragging these young individuals through the court system is in the public’s interest. Nor is it in the public’s interest to have prosecutors listening to students about how they forgot their U-Pass. My belief is that students belong in classrooms learning, not in courtrooms talking to prosecutors.

Since that small victory, I have been through a roller coaster of media interviews, meetings, and consultations with a variety of stakeholders trying to find a solution to this issue. What have I learned so far? Changing policy is not an easy thing to do, and changing a bylaw is an even tougher battle, especially when over 70,000 students are potentially involved.  Nonetheless, I am still cautiously optimistic that the Students’ Unions, the City, and myself can get past the stall in our negotiations and find a solution that works for Edmontonians, and the thousands of students attending institutions that participate in the U-Pass program.