A Montreal municipal court judge has tossed more than 260 charges — mostly minor offences against homeless people — saying unreasonable delays in getting the cases to court violated the charter rights of the accused.
In his decision released last week, Judge Gaétan Plouffe explained most of the 264 cases involved vulnerable defendants who appeared to be homeless.
The offences were low-level violations of municipal bylaws that Plouffe described as "incivilities": loitering, littering, sleeping on public benches, not paying transit fares.
"The court is seized by this situation of the violation of the right to a trial within a reasonable time in so many cases," Plouffe said in the decision.
Experts and advocates for people living on the street in Montreal have long complained ticketing vulnerable people for banal offences amounts to "social profiling."
Marie-Eve Sylvestre, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, has studied the phenomenon.
"This is just another decision that tells us it's very costly, very inefficient and very derogatory to issue those tickets against homeless people in Montreal," Sylvestre told CBC.
In his decision, Judge Plouffe cited the 2016 Supreme Court decision known as the "Jordan ruling," which dealt with the constitutional right to a trial within a reasonable time.
That ruling set a limit of 18 months between the laying of charges and the end of a trial for lower level offences such as those handled in municipal court.
All the charges that were stayed by Plouffe first appeared on court rolls July 10.
The alleged infractions happened between September and April 2017, meaning they surpassed the 18-month limit set out in the Jordan ruling.
Sylvestre said it's the first time she's aware of the Jordan ruling being invoked in a such a large batch of cases involving homeless people.
Charges stayed despite absence of defendants
None of the accused in the 264 cases entered a plea or showed up in court. Prosecutors also didn't show up in court.
Nadia Lemieux, community organizer with the Réseau d'aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM) — an umbrella group of organizations that works with homeless people — told CBC this is fairly common.
"For most homeless people, even going to a doctor's appointment, they don't go, because they can't hold a schedule. It's the same for court. It makes no difference to them because they can't afford to pay the fines," Lemieux said.
Municipal court judges have a choice in such cases: they can either delay the trial, or render a judgment in absence of both parties.
In his decision, Plouffe said he reviewed all the cases and would have found all the defendants guilty, if not for the question of the unreasonable delays.
He noted it was his duty to assist any unrepresented defendant, even in their absence, particularly when it came to questions involving their charter rights.
Ticketing homeless people 'useless'
Nathalie Lemieux of RAPSIM said the decision underlines the futility of giving tickets to homeless people.
"They're useless. They don't do anything for these people except charging them for a lot of money that they cannot pay," Lemieux said.
Marie-Eve Sylvestre from the University of Ottawa agreed.
"We know it's violating their fundamental rights. We know they're not going to pay the fines. It's clogging the court system, and obstructing justice in a way," Sylvestre said.
Sylvestre and Lemieux said rather than ticketing homeless people, the city should invest in outreach workers and services.
City is working on it
Sylvestre acknowledged the municipal courthouse in Montreal has tried to address the problem, working with a legal clinic for homeless people to create a program where they can have fines reduced or withdrawn.
The city of Montreal announced a plan last December with police to reduce social profiling.
But RAPSIM's Nathalie Lemieux said it's still happening.
"On the ground we see few improvements. We see the same or perhaps even an increase in tickets for certain offences for homeless people," Lemieux said.
Sylvestre, from the University of Ottawa, agreed.
"There's a very high number of those cases. Tickets still get issued every day," Sylvestre said.
"It's a common strategy used by the Montreal police, perhaps not giving the results they are hoping for," she continued.
Sylvestre said this could be the first of many decisions where large numbers of infractions against homeless people are tossed due to unreasonable delays.
No one from the city of Montreal's legal department could be reached for comment.