'I'm out around $3K': Drivers surprised by licence suspension for 30-year-old traffic tickets

Truck driver Garry Prentice doesn't remember running a red light in Toronto 30 years ago, but the Toronto courts definitely do. He's one of two people who've had their licences suspended because of an unpaid traffic ticket from the 1980s.

Prentice was on the road about a week ago when his girlfriend called to tell him he got a letter saying his licence was suspended.

Prentice said he immediately thought: "I have no fines, what's going on?"

It was in an Ontario courthouse where he found out the suspension was due to an unpaid $87.25 traffic ticket from 1988.

No prior warning

What puzzles Prentice is that he was able to renew his driver's licence and plates from three decades without a problem and then suddenly he's hit with the old ticket and forced to fork out $275 to have his licence reinstated.

"I didn't receive anything in the mail, any notice about an outstanding ticket. It just went straight to suspension," said Prentice. "That's not fair."

Noreen Frank says a ticket from the 80s has also come back to haunt her. She lives in Minden, three hours northeast of Toronto, and was shocked when she received a similar suspension letter. 

"It's for failing to stop at a stop sign in 1987," said Frank.

Frank says she remembers paying the ticket immediately, but can't prove it because she doesn't have the 32-year-old receipt. 

"I went to the Toronto courthouse the day it happened and paid it even though it had the wrong birthdate on it. I didn't want it to come back at me when I went to renew my licence. Yet here we are 32 years later."

Toronto going after unpaid tickets

Paralegal Daniel Jenner says "they follow you till death and live through bankruptcy." 

Just in the last week, Jenner says he's received three calls from people saying their licences were suspended from outstanding Toronto tickets they didn't know they had.

Natalie Nanowski/CBC News

"Years ago most of the fines just went into default, some went into suspension status. What they've realized is that if you suspend someone's licence, they're much more motivated to pay the fine," said Jenner.

The City of Toronto admits that it's changed the way it tracks down unpaid traffic tickets. Following an Auditor General's report in 2018, it now uses four different methods to collect outstanding Provincial Offence Act fines: adding them to property taxes, licence suspension, plate denial and applying civil enforcement measures through the Superior Court of Justice.

Tickets stick around forever

Even though the city says it's using a collection agency to notify people of outstanding fines, Jenner says people might not get the notices because the phone number and/or address Toronto has on file for an old ticket could be out of date.

"So people are not getting any warning, they're just saying that your licence is suspended because of unpaid fines, which is legal," said Jenner.

Both Prentice and Frank say the frustrating part about all of this is that they had to wait five days to have their licence reinstated, so they lost a week of work.

"I'm out around $3,000," said Prentice. "I had a job booked and I couldn't do it because I couldn't drive. Now this suspension is going to stay on my record."

Neither Frank nor Prentice want to fight the ticket. They both live three to four hours north of the city and they say it would take too much money and time to come to Toronto.