Getting "hit and run" drivers off the road no easy task

It’s one of  thousands of  traffic accidents in Toronto each year and at first glance it looked like a judicial slam-dunk: a “hit and run” law enforcement officials and crown prosecutors would love to start the day with.  Occurring in Downsview on a Sunday afternoon in May 1998, the quiet was broken by the piercing sound of  tires trying unsuccessfully to avoid a girl on a bike.  With the girl on the ground,  the driver got out and checked the girl’s scrapes and bruises.  But not for long. As a crowd started milling about, and before ambulance and police could arrive, the driver left.

Apprehending and convicting the driver looked likely. Neighbours had a licence plate number, a description of the car and a description of the driver.  The accident occurred on a clear, dry and sunny afternoon by a driver that had other driving infractions. Shortly thereafter the driver was arrested. According to the lead detective, charges included careless driving, failure to remain at the scene, failure to report the accident and driving with a suspended licence.  A prison sentence was in the offing.

It didn’t quite work out that waynbsp;

“We had a little bit of a problem with a key witness that never showed up,” said Detective Constable Henry Vandenbrink, who reluctantly went along with a plea bargain.

The defendant pleaded guilty to the lesser charges (more serious ones were dropped) and was given a small fine.  His licence remained suspended.

“There were two or three witnesses out of five that I needed.  They’re the ones that took down the licence plate, they’re the ones that could describe the car and the driver…If I had the right three out of five people there we would have had a great trial…” said Detective Vandenbrink.

Toronto’s roads aren’t always the nicest place to be.  In 1997, there were almost 55,000 “property damage” traffic accidents. Included in this group were over 17,000 accidents in which people were injured.  Overall in 1997 there were over 81,000 accidents, both reportable and non-reportable.

Budd Johnston is one of 26 full time provincial prosecutors handling Toronto’s traffic cases in 18 different court houses.  Mr. Johnston couldn’t remember the Downsview accident case when asked about it six weeks after the February trial.  And why should he?  Johnston prosecutes thousands of traffic cases each year.

“You know how many cases I’ve done since February? Yesterday, I did about 120.  Quite frankly I don’t remember the case at all…I’ve never kept track, quite frankly, to think of how many cases I would have in a week let alone a year,” explained an exasperated Mr. Johnston.

For the police, pulling the case together for the prosecution, including compiling evidence and ensuring witnesses attend is hit and miss.  Detective Vandenbrink knows this all too well.

“Your job is to prepare the case and bring it before the courts.  You’ve done your best and witnesses, for whatever reason, don’t show up.  It would be nice to contact them all but we’ve got such a workload that sometimes it’s just impossible to contact everybody,” says Detective Vandenbrink.

Over the past number of years a cottage industry of companies, mostly para legal organizations have sprung up to defend drivers who are facing a wide range of driving charges.  Many of these firms work on contingency, guaranteeing their clients that they don’t have to pay their fee if the firm is unable “help in a substantial way” is affecting the charges and/or tickets.

Dror Ziskind, Director of Operations for a company called Tickets believes that 30-40% of the cases his firm represents end in acquittal, dismissal or withdrawing of the charges.  Many charges are thrown out because of the delay time between the incident and trial.

“If we do any better than this cops won’t give tickets.  Think about it.  Would you [charge people] when you know 50% of the time it is not good?,” said Mr. Ziskind in referring to their success rate.

What scares most people, according to Mr. Ziskind, is not the strong arm of the law but rather what an insurance company will do to a convicted driver’s rates.

“In terms of going to court, normally a person will be more than happy to take a deal. If they were to lose, that careless driving charge would cause his insurance to triple.  That ticket represented $6,000.00 with the insurance company.  Would you want to risk it?  Here we try to do the maximum results with the minimum risk,” said Mr. Ziskind who contends that close to 60% of their cases are settled through a plea bargain.

In a world of assembly line trials, provincial prosecutor Johnston must decide on plea bargains quickly and go with what information he has.

“We don’t always have copies of the records of any past convictions.  I would have taken into consideration what the officers had to say, what the defendants had to say what any witnesses there might have had to say,” said Mr. Johnston.

Future drivers who get in trouble with the law may be in for a rougher ride.  The Ministry of the Attorney General is currently pouring resources into the traffic court system. Courtrooms have been added to the Eglinton Avenue, Sheppard Avenue E. and Keele Street traffic courts. In addition, traffic courts are getting 18 new justices of the peace, 10 new administrative staff and 2 new provincial prosecutors. 

Whether people will learn their lesson is another thing.  In the case of the Downsview accident, for the defendant staying out of jail must have felt like victory.  However, with the plea bargain in place and the blame game finally coming to an end, the defendant, while leaving the courtroom was over heard telling the girl he hit: “Why don’t you learn how to ride your bicycle more carefully?”