Legal clinic for homeless speaks out against police ticketing practices
During his two years on the streets of Montreal, Alex Berthelot ran up $10,000 of unpaid tickets for just about everything from having emitted an audible sound outside or by disposing of ashes in a public space.
”In a suit and tie you're not going to get a ticket for ashing your cigarette. [The law is] really applied selectively to homeless populations or marginalized populations they don’t want to see,” he said.
Legal clinic Droit Devant is raising concerns over what they call the systematic problem of police issuing fines to Montreal’s homeless.
The clinic, which specializes in legal services for the homeless, runs a program with the municipal court that helps wipe out tickets for those least able to pay them off. They said they regularly have clients who owe tens of thousands of dollars, including one extreme case of a homeless person who owed over $100,000 in unpaid fines.
A spokesperson for Droit Devant said issuing the tickets traps the homeless in a cycle of poverty by forcing them to spend money they don’t have and perform community service instead of looking for a job.
They added that ticketing contradicts the city’s five-year, $37-million plan to get 2,000 people off the streets.
Since 2012, Montreal police have made efforts to tackle social profiling within the force but advocates claim it's done nothing to slow the flow of tickets – a study released that same year said the homeless owe the city of Montreal $15 million in fines.
Police say they're cracking down on disruptive behaviours.
“We're not acting on an individual, we're acting on an infraction because we want people to feel safe in their community,” said Cmdr. Vincent Richer.
Berthelot eventually went back to school, started a family, bought a house and remembered all those tickets.
“They've got something to seize now .that's when it became primordial that I deal with it, because if I don’t then I'll lose everything I worked so hard to get,” he said.
With the help of Droit Devant, most of his debt was erased, but every unpaid ticket comes at a cost: police processing, court time, and bailiff's fees.
It’s unclear just how much those tickets are costing Montrealers. Droit Devant is crunching numbers, trying to make a strong case for police to change their approach.