COVID-19: Civil Liberties Group Warns of “Unfair and Arbitrary” Law Enforcement as Heavy Fines Accumulate in Canada


OTTAWA – Civil Liberties Group Warns Police and City Officials Against Increasingly Draconian Fines Against Those Who Disregard Social Distancing Measures As Towns and Villages Double efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Police and administrative officers across Canada have imposed hundreds of fines on people who break the rules of social distancing, turning involuntary dog ​​walkers into social deviants and confusing what is behavior acceptable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Municipal law enforcement in Halifax, Montreal and Ottawa in particular has slapped residents with harsh sanctions in recent days, according to a review of fines in major cities by the National Post. City officials have fined people resting in public parks or crossing empty soccer fields, and have threatened lawsuits against neighbors who attended a birthday party away from their cars.

“At one point, this pandemic, in some jurisdictions, stopped affecting public health and started to affect public order, because politicians did not see the behavior they wanted from their constituents,” said Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

He warned that the unclear social distancing measures applied across the country could lead to further neglect if people feel targeted or if the government is seen to be beyond its authority. Various experts and political observers have warned that the social fallout from overly strict isolation measures could outweigh the health risks themselves.

“When the laws are unenforceable or indecipherable, people will ignore them,” said Bryant. “When the application is unfair and arbitrary, people become less compliant and more provocative. They focus less on obeying the rules and more on not being caught. “

The warning comes amid growing confusion and frustration over the introduction of strict social distancing rules, which have been applied in disparate ways in Canadian cities.

By-law officers in Ottawa issued more than 40 tickets this weekend, including a $ 880 fine to a man who was caught walking his dog. Corey Yanofsky was fined for crossing Ottawa’s Britannia Park, which has been closed to pedestrians in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, according to a report by the Ottawa Citizen. Officers paid another Ottawa man $ 2,000 for refusing to identify himself.

On Monday morning, the Montreal Police Service imposed 67 fines of approximately $ 1,546 each, including fees. On Monday, the Quebec provincial police had filed 157 reports on people.

When the application is unfair and arbitrary, people become less compliant and more provocative

In the past four days alone, the Nova Scotia RCMP has fined 38 people for violations of Nova Scotia’s health protection and emergency management laws, according to a press release. These fines include $ 697.50 for three people for reasons the police refused to specify, as well as another $ 7,500 fine against a Nova Scotia company, which the RCMP did not specify in public documents.

The Montreal charges included fines of $ 1,500 each against a group of 12 youths playing soccer on an outdoor field, according to a La Presse report. Settlement officers also threatened Montrealer Mélissa Leblanc with fines for “disrespecting society” after a group of Leblanc’s friends wished her a happy birthday by driving to her house and honking their horns. car horns. Leblanc had watched the celebration through the window of his house, according to the La Presse report.

The influx of fines is fueling deeper fears that public officials may abuse their new powers, as well as officers and police who already demonstrate an authoritarian or controlling instinct. Bryant warned that there are limits to the effectiveness of a tougher enforcement approach in Canada, even as governments in western countries expand their powers as a way of fighting the virus.

“Unlike China, an instant change in mass behavior is not possible,” he said. “In a democracy, you will not get compliance overnight. Trying to control our exit from this pandemic is unimaginative and sometimes unconstitutional. But it is definitely ineffective, because when the rules do not make sense, people stop listening to those in power. ”

A police cadet chats with two men about their dog to raise awareness about the COVID-19 virus in a Montreal park, April 2, 2020.

Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press

Fines in western cities have also increased.

The Regina Police Service, for its part, issued a $ 2,800 bill to a 23-year-old woman this weekend for failing to comply with the provincial health ordinance – the city’s first fine for having violates social distancing orders. City police spokesperson said she could not provide further details on the fine, but said she was released after she was informed of the office’s failure to respect the woman provincial health.

Toronto police issued nine tickets over the weekend and settlement officers issued one ticket, according to the city. Vancouver had received 69 complaints about its 311 live line before the weekend, but has yet to issue a fine, according to city spokesmen.

Unlike all other major cities in Canada, spokespersons for the Edmonton and Calgary police services did not respond to a request for information on the number of fines imposed in their respective cities.

Advocates of a stricter application of social distance quickly point out that without harsh sanctions, some people will continue to disregard public safety and flout the rules.

We are very proactive

A homeowner in Brampton, Ontario, for example, was charged on March 31 with having a barbecue attended by about 20 other people, which city mayor Patrick Brown said was ” total disregard for the requirements of physical distancing from public health ”. Brown suggested last week that the fine could reach the maximum of $ 100,000. In most cases in Canada, fines are imposed by administrative officers or police, but the total cost of the fines will be determined by the courts.

Brampton spokesperson Natalie Stogdill said residents were “generally supportive” of the social distancing measures and said the city had received no complaints of which she was aware.

“Our law enforcement officers are reasonable and try to educate the public,” she said. “We are very proactive in our communications. “

Bryant, at ACCL, said that while individuals deserve sanctions, there are fears that law enforcement will accept these sanctions as the new standard and apply them at all levels.

“There is no epidemic of barbecues in Canada,” he said. “Just because there is a barbecue in the backyard in Brampton does not mean that everyone should change their behavior to an unreasonable degree, or that they should be fined for actions considered innocent there a week. “

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