Wingham restaurant owner found guilty, ordered to pay $5,500 in fines

WINGHAM – The verdict in the court case between Huron Perth Public Health (HPPH) and Buck & Jo’s owners Stephen and Joanne Hill is in.

On Feb. 28 at the Goderich courthouse, the justice of the peace (JP) turned in a guilty verdict for Stephen.

Joanne was found not guilty because the JP was not convinced she was involved at all, save for taking some video with her cell phone of the confrontation between HPPH officers and Stephen.

Stephen was found guilty of three charges: not providing a safety plan, not checking for proof of vaccination against COVID-19, and failure to cooperate with HPPH enforcement.

Stephen submitted video evidence during the trial that confirmed the HPPH officer’s statements, and at no point did the JP see or hear any evidence he believed backed up what Stephen was saying.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” said the JP. He added that the officers actually showed “a considerable amount of restraint.”

Gregory Stewart, the lawyer for HPPH, said that the maximum fine for each conviction was $5,000. He asked the court to consider a fine of $3,000 for each charge.

Stewart argued that a deterrent was necessary and a high fine was so that anyone else would see that there were severe consequences.

“It shouldn’t just be a slap on the wrist,” he said.

When the JP asked Stephen for his input on what the fines should be, Stephen argued that he shouldn’t have been convicted at all, let alone pay any penalty.

The JP warned Stephen several times to stick to the fines, saying the trial is over and the Feb. 28 proceedings are the sentencing hearing.

In his final remarks before he imposed the sentence, the JP spoke directly to Stephen, telling him that in the interest of the public and the unprecedented situation with a worldwide pandemic, this behaviour was not a minor thing.

He told Stephen that his conduct was aggressive and uncooperative. It wasn’t just a refusal to comply; it was designed to intimidate the HPPH officers.

“They were just trying to do their job,” said the JP, “No officer should be treated that way.”

The JP spoke about the seriousness of the pandemic, saying, “we were all obliged to follow [the rules] whether we agreed with them or not… this requirement was meant to assist operations like (Buck & Jo’s) to open.”

Stephen was ordered to pay a total of $5,500 – $1,500 each for not providing a safety plan and not checking for proof of vaccination against COVID-19, and $2,500 for failure to cooperate with HPPH enforcement.

He asked for 10 years to pay, which the JP denied, saying he had one year to pay. After one year, he told Stephen he could apply for an extension if needed.

Shortly after court was over, Buck & Jo’s announced on Facebook that they were closed until further notice.

“Sorry, but we are closed until further notice. Today I received a $5,500 fine, and Buck & Jo’s can no longer continue to operate as is. It turns out you are guilty until you can prove otherwise in Goderich court,” stated the post. “Even though our dining room was closed and there was zero requirement to do the vax-pass, it didn’t matter as they didn’t like my attitude on previous visits and I got a $5,500 fine. If anyone has a business idea for a street corner in the heart of Wingham, message us.”

As of March 3, Buck & Jo’s have announced they are reopen.

Plan to appeal

The Hills plan to appeal, making the announcement in a social media post on March 2 along with a request for help from supporters.

“If you know anyone that can help us with an appeal, please contact them to see if they are interested in helping us,” states the post. “I can’t tell you how eager I am to have (HPPH employees) Chris (Boyes) and Patrick (Landry) on the stand again and to clear our name.”

The couple has started a “freedom fundraiser,” to “hire someone to help,” another post said.

According to the Ontario Court of Justice, you have 30 days from the date of the decision you are appealing to serve your Notice of Appeal. You must then file your appeal within five days of serving the prosecutor.

Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times