Roxana (who didn’t wish to use her last name), a new mom to a six-month-old and owner to an Australian Shepherd, took her babies for a walk on April 18 around 4:30 p.m. to Edward Coltham Park near Leslie St. and St. John’s Sdrd.
She walked down one of the narrow paths in the park and pulled over her stroller and dog into a nearby gazebo to let three seniors pass. She responded to a text while her dog was at her side and baby asleep.
Once the group has passed, Roxana said she continued on the pathway, but was abruptly met by Town of Aurora bylaw officer Mario Munguia in a vehicle marked animal services. He asked her why she was in the park and if she knew the park was closed and she responded that she was walking her dog. She said he then asked for her identification, which she didn’t have on her, but cooperated with giving him other personal information.
He then wrote her a ticket for $880 for being in the closed park and that she was standing around too long – despite the town allowing the public to access trails and pathways. Officially, the ticket says the offence is “failure to comply with orders during public emergency.”
“His line of questioning was very much as if a police officer was questioning me,” Roxana, 29, told the Toronto Sun on Tuesday.
“He told me it was a zero-tolerance policy and his words verbatim was that I was standing for over two minutes. My head exploded at that point. It made me feel like I had killed someone or sold drugs or did something ridiculous.”
Roxana wrote a post on Facebook about her experience.
“He also mentioned that he was watching me from afar. I was also absolutely alone. So although there were plenty of people ‘loitering,’ as the officer called it, he only had jurisdiction to issue me a ticket because I had my dog with me.”
According to the Town of Aurora’s website, all parks are closed, however, “trails are open for use and residents may utilize the pathways to walk through the parks. Please practice social distancing when using Aurora’s trails and do not use park benches and picnic tables and avoid all high touch surfaces on your journeys.”
Roxana followed up with an email to the town’s bylaw manager, Alexander Wray, to ask why Munguia was not wearing personal protective equipment and not adhering to physical distancing rules. Wray responded bylaw officers may break physical distancing in order to do their jobs, but didn’t make it clear why he wasn’t wearing PPE. A city spokesman told the Sun it’s up to individual officers to decide.
“The town has made it clear that only trails and pathways are open to be walked on” and that officers are enforcing the bylaw “given a lack of compliance in the community,” Wray wrote in the email.
Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas said he doesn’t have jurisdiction to revoke the ticket and that the town’s legal counsel has advised staff not to discuss the details of the case because the ticket will be fought in court.
Mrakas admitted in a phone interview Tuesday having the parks closed and yet the walkways open is “confusing.”
“My understanding is if you’re not on the walkway, then you’re in violation,” he said. “We have hundreds of kilometres of trails that are still open, but we explain to residents, stick to pathways if possible. We also don’t encourage people to use pathways in the parks. If they have to go through them, they’re there and you won’t get ticketed if you’re on a pathway, but parks are closed.”
The mayor said under the provincial orders, people won’t be ticketed by moving aside to make room for people coming towards them.
“If you’re going to walk through the park, it’s not to stand in the park,” he said. “How long does it take for someone to walk by and then you just jog back in?”
The Town of Aurora would not get into the specifics of Roxana’s case, citing privacy issues, but said “parks and facilities have clear and visible signage indicating closures and an education campaign about the closures and provincial orders was done.”
Since March 25, Aurora’s bylaw services has received 171 formal complaints from people breaking physical distancing orders, resulting in 61 charges, or 2%.
Michael Bryant of The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said this problem of “ticketing first, asking questions later” is widespread during the pandemic.
“I think it’s a combination of general COVID anxiety (officers) are under and power-tripping, which arise from these new powers,” he said. “There is an apprehension of abuse of process, if not political pressure put on them to ticket people, because mayors, councillors and cabinet ministers writing directly to the chief of police and bylaw officials about enforcement. This is not constitutional kosher. Politicians cannot be directing police.”
Brian Gray, a spokesman for the Ministry of Attorney General, said the province announced in March it was suspending timelines under the Provincial Offences Act and related proceedings.
“As such, defendants who are charged with an offence during this period and wish to exercise their options on the back of a ticket will have an opportunity to do so once the state of emergency is lifted and statutory timelines resume,” said Gray.
Roxana said this was the first time in weeks she left the house to get some exercise. She had been told fresh air was good for her to ease her anxiety, on top of having been cooped up in the house with a newborn and recovering from bronchitis for months.
She said she wonders if there is a broader problem of officers not being adequately trained.
“In a time when there’s a lot of tension, to scare people by randomly handing out tickets is absolutely inappropriate,” she said.
“This is fear-mongering at its finest. I was told I was still allowed to walk in the park but I guess that’s not absolutely true. I got a ticket for social distancing, minding my own business and having a dog. That was my crime.”