My Encounter with the Canadian Justice System: A St. Patrick’s Day cautionary tale in five parts

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PART ONE: Getting hammered

My 2011 St. Patrick’s Day started off relatively normally. This is to say that I arrived at York University’s student-owned bar The Absinthe Pub at approximately 11am, clad in ritualistic green, and proceeded to drink several pitchers of green PBR and a few Irish Car bombs. Highlights of the day: Someone passing out green face paint. Someone showing everyone their balls. Someone else painting those balls with the green face paint.

Around 8:30pm, I decided it was time for me to head home. While I was walking across the Vanier parking lot, I noticed a hammer on the ground. “Awesome,” I said to nobody in particular. “A hammer is just what I need for my toolkit, particularly one that doesn’t cost me any money because I found it on the ground right now.”

Had I known what was about to happen to me due to my decision to pick up this hammer, chances are pretty good I would have left it there on the ground. Alas, things are not always so easy.

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PART TWO: Mistakenly treating real police like mall security guards

Walking down Ian MacDonald Boulevard, I noticed some people working out in the Seneca gym. Who could be working out in a gym on such a day? I wondered to myself. I peered through the tiny window to see who it could be, holding my hammer in a manner that I now realize could be perceived as “threatening.”

A police cruiser pulled up and two officers hopped out. One of them shouted at me to “DROP THE HAMMER NOW!” I happily complied with this request. The police officers approached me and began questioning me. It did not go well.

Had I been drinking that night? “Yes. It’s St. Patrick’s Day.” He wanted to search my backpack. Was I carrying any drugs in here? “No, officer.” I actually wasn’t, luckily. Was I a student here? I was asked to produce my student card and list every class I was currently taking. Emboldened by the green beer, I was less than cooperative with the police officer. One exchange I particularly remember:

Cop: Ever been in trouble before?

Drunk James: Well, in grade three my teacher caught me cheating on a test.

Cop: You ever been in trouble for something I GIVE A SHIT about?

Of course, the officer wasn’t about to let me off without giving me a ticket for SOMETHING. I was charged with “Being intoxicated in a public place contrary to the Liquor License Act section 31 (4).” The fee was $100, or, as I chose to look at it, 100 kraft dinners.

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PART THREE: Telling my parents about this whole ordeal

When I’d sobered up the next day I called my parents. My mother picked up the phone. She was shocked and upset when I told her about my encounter. “Exactly how much had you had to drink?” I told her the precise amount, but defended myself by saying “It SEEMS like a lot, but it’s not because I’d actually been at the bar since 11 in the morning!” which is apparently the wrong thing to say to my mother.

I finally got my dad on the phone, who thought the whole thing was hilarious. He told me I should plead innocent and go to court to defend myself. He assured me right away that I wasn’t going to win- it was my word against the cop’s- but that it would be a “good experience” for me.

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PART FOUR: Building my case

Following my dad’s advice, I pled innocent (which, incidentally, is a pretty big pain. had to go to the courthouse, fill out a bunch of forms, take a number, wait in line for a couple hours…) and received a notice in the mail three months later informing me of my trial date: February 14th, 2012. Almost a full eleven months after my initial offence. Notice also that they chose the only other day of the year named after a saint (I’m not 100% sure that’s true but just go with it).

Although I had about a year to work on my defence, I didn’t REALLY get started until February 13th. First, I stopped off at the York Legal Aid office at Osgoode. They were quick to inform me that they weren’t going to help me out with my case as it was only a $100 fine and they only had time for clients who faced actual jail time. BUT they gave me a number to call for a half hour of free consultation from an actual lawyer.

The lawyer I was referred to answered after about five rings. He sounded like he was walking very fast down a hallway full of people. At one point he went outside and got into a car (I know because he said “Sorry, I’m in a car now”). The connection was pretty weak, and it was very hard for either of us to understand one another.

The whole time he thought I was trying to hire him as my lawyer, which would have been a pretty stupid idea just to avoid a $100 fine. In the end, he told me I had very little chance of winning the case, as cops usually know the judge personally and people are more likely to lie when they’re trying to be proven innocent. I thanked him for his time.

That night, I prepared for my trial with the help of my roommates. One lent me his belt and tie, the other ironed my only presentable collared shirt. I shaved off my goatee (R.I.P.) and took a shower. I felt ready.

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PART FIVE: The day the Canadian Government set aside a half hour to talk about how crazy I got last St. Patrick’s Day

The morning of my day in court, I got up, polished off a bottle of Jack Daniels’ with my roommate, and got on the bus with my girlfriend to our Valentine’s Day date at the courthouse.

As we sat in the waiting area with all the other criminals, I kept an eye out for my cop. Throughout the year, everybody I’d talked to about the case- except my dad and the lawyer- had assured me that the cop wasn’t going to show up and I’d just be let off. When I saw the cop outside the courtroom door, my heart sank. Now I would actually have to DEFEND myself, and not just get let off the hook simply for showing up.

Once inside the courtroom, everybody lined up to talk to the prosecutor about their case. She asked me my name, I told her. “Public Intoxication, is that right?” It was. “How are you pleading today?” Not guilty. She seemed taken aback. “You understand that by pleading not guilty your sentence rests in the hands of the judge? That you could end up with an even HIGHER fine? That you could end up with community service?” I didn’t actually know that, but I was still pleading innocent, dammit. “If you plead guilty right here and now, I’m prepared to cut your fine in half.” I told her I wasn’t interested in plea bargaining. $50 is still 50 kraft dinners I’d never get to eat.

When my cop got up to the front of the line, I heard the conversation between him and the prosecutor. Apparently he was just a dude there for failing to wear a seatbelt. Huh, so he wasn’t my cop. I guess I must have just been too drunk that night to remember exactly what his face looked like.

Finally, it was my turn at the stand. “Good afternoon, Your Worship,” I said, because I had heard someone else say that and it sounded legit. The judge asked me my name, how I was pleading, and if I was ready to proceed. I was. Then she turned to the prosecution and asked her if SHE was ready to proceed. “No, Your Worship. Officer Series of Numbers is not present and has not given us a reason for his absence.”

The judge turned to me and said “In that case, this case is dismissed. You’re free to go, Mr. Island.”

I walked out of that courthouse a free man. My girlfriend and I headed straight to a bar across the street to celebrate.

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This story originally appeared in Artichoke Magazine, published by Winters Free Press. All photos were taken by me, the same day this story began, at the Absinthe Pub.

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