In TTC ticket court, everyone has a story to tell. Or at least, they have an excuse.
Two or three days a week, citizens unlucky enough to be ticketed for alleged fare evasion or other offences under the TTC’s bylaws line up in a stuffy courtroom on the third floor of Old City Hall to tell a justice of the peace why they deserve a lower fine, or no charge at all — the Presto reader wasn’t working; they definitely took a transfer but misplaced it; they always pay but forgot enough change this one time.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a young man in a stylish blue blazer told Justice of the Peace Karin Dresher he had no choice but to board the King streetcar without paying at 1 a.m. on a February morning — it was cold and the subway station was too far to walk.
“Good try,” she told him, as she denied his request for a lower fine.
Toronto’s transit agency loses millions of dollars every year to fare evasion, but for many riders a fine can be a major financial burden. TTC ticket court is where the legal system attempts to strike the balance between ensuring riders follow the rules, while not imposing undue hardship on those who rely on the city’s transit system.
Set fines for TTC offences range between $235 and $425. But TTC prosecutors often agree to recommend a reduced fine of around $95 for skipping fare if a rider admits guilt.
While throughout the day Dresher did agree to waive or lower fines for many TTC users, she also made clear why she believes it’s important to impose penalties stiff enough to deter fare evasion.
“The problem is, is that when you have all of these people trying to evade payment … the system breaks down. This is the system that keeps the whole city going, it’s an important system for everybody,” she told one man who asked for a lower fine.
According to statistics obtained by the Star through a freedom of information request, TTC officers gave out more than 80,000 tickets between 2008 and 2018, which, like parking or speeding tickets, are non-criminal provincial offences.
The most common charge was for “failing to comply with posted regulations,” which usually refers to not paying fare but can also cover other prohibited behaviour. The TTC gave out 32,927 tickets for that charge over the 11 years covered by the data. Other tickets spanned from littering to urinating, defecating, or spitting on transit agency property.
Riders who get a ticket have three options. They can simply pay the ticket, plead guilty but make submissions about why their fine should be reduced, or fight the ticket at trial.
Hearings on TTC tickets usually take place on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and every other Friday, when the courtroom is filled with upwards of three dozen people representing a cross-section of the city’s transit users quietly waiting their turn or swapping stories with their fellow accused.
Before their case goes to court, riders can opt for early resolution, a process in which the TTC prosecutor will hear them out in an office and possibly lower their fine.
Those who don’t opt for early resolution can attend court, where the prosecutor can still agree to recommend a lower fine if they agree to plead guilty. If they don’t plead out, the matter goes to trial.
Standing at the back of the courtroom discussing possible strategies with his fellow ticket recipients, CJ Thompson, a 30-year-old who works in arts administration, said he was hoping to convince the justice of the peace to set his fine even lower than the $95 the prosecutor agreed to recommend. He said he had a friend who had managed to get it down to $60.
“Ninety-five dollars is heck of a lot, for me,” he explained.
Thompson said he got a ticket for not paying his fare after he boarded the Spadina streetcar. He hadn’t tapped his Presto card on the fare reader, and before the vehicle even left the stop a plain clothes fare inspector tapped him on the shoulder and asked for his proof of payment.
Thompson acknowledged that technically he had failed to pay. But, “I think it would have been more fair if he had given me a minute to get my s— together and have the chance to pull my wallet out of my backpack,” he said.
Asked by a reporter if he had really intended to pay his fare that day, Thompson paused, smiled and said “Yeah.”
TTC prosecutor Sonia Ristic says only a minority of people ticketed choose to pay the original fine outright.
The set fine for fare evasion is more than 70 times greater than the cost of the TTC’s $3.25 cash fare, so “if you’ve just not paid your fare, you believe it’s high,” Ristic said.
Ristic has been the TTC’s prosecutor for 17 years, and in that time she’s heard every conceivable excuse for not paying fare. She says the most common are riders pleading that they intended to pay later, were wearing headphones and not paying attention, were rushing to make sure they got a seat on a vehicle, or were simply having a bad day.
She said she sometimes wishes she could have all those excuses printed out and posted around her office, so that when riders walk in they know she’s heard it all before.
And she’s capable of thorough investigations. If someone claims a Presto reader wasn’t working when they boarded a bus or streetcar, she’s able to check whether it was operational right down to the exact time and the reader’s location on the vehicle.
“Sometimes when I tell them that I can look at that, they actually just plead out. They go no, no don’t bother,” she said.
As long as the rider agrees to plead guilty, Ristic will often agree to knock down the fine, even she doesn’t find their story convincing.
“The idea is that they’re showing remorse, they’re accepting responsibility for their actions,” she said.
She asserted she is “consistent and fair,” and will ask for increased fines for repeat offenders or those who commit deliberate fraud, but waive them for people who demonstrate they have no ability to pay.
The justice of the peace agreed not to issue a fine at all to Samar Grant, 21, who was ticketed for not being able to produce a transfer when confronted on the streetcar platform at Dundas West station.
Dresher agreed to let him off without penalty after his mother Tessa Gooding Grant, who accompanied her son to court, submitted documents from teachers and doctors to show he has developmental challenges that would make it difficult for him to follow TTC fare rules.
Samar and his mother are Black, and while Gooding Grant wasn’t with her son when he got a ticket, she wondered whether his race, in addition to his intellectual disability, might have played a role in the incident.
Gooding Grant said she herself has felt singled out by fare inspectors while riding the 504 King streetcar, and believes white customers aren’t as readily asked for proof of payment.
“Race always plays a factor in everything here in North America,” she said.
The statistics obtained by the Star show that between 2008 and 2018, of the tickets on which the customer’s race was recorded, 18.5 per cent were listed as Black. While the TTC doesn’t keep precise figures on the race of its customers, according to the 2016 Census, Black riders make up just 10.7 per cent of those in Toronto who commute by public transit.
Some advocates say the numbers are proof that Black TTC users are unfairly targeted by fare inspectors. The TTC strongly denies those claims and says the data isn’t reliable because more than 40 per cent of tickets don’t record the race of the customer.
“We do not target specific customers for inspection and we want all customers to feel safe and free of harassment on our system at all times,” TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said.
The TTC has significantly stepped up enforcement in recent years, issuing more than 15,000 tickets in 2018, compared to about 3,800 in 2015. In January, the agency announced plans to hire about 70 additional officers, at an estimated cost of $4.5 million.
The crackdown coincides with policy changes such as the introduction of the honour system for all-door boarding on streetcars, and the gradual phase-in of the Presto system.
There are transit advocates who argue increased enforcement is misguided. They say TTC fares, which have gone up in seven of the past eight years, are too high and resources would be better invested in lowering prices and improving service instead of chasing down evaders, many of whom may be marginalized people who are unable to pay for public transit.
Despite the higher volume of tickets, the agency still has a sizable fare evasion problem. According to a recent report from the city’s auditor general, riders not paying cost the TTC an estimated $61 million last year.
Fines collected through TTC tickets go to the city, not directly to the transit agency.
Accused fare scofflaw, Alma Tudor, 59, didn’t get a chance to tell her story to the court. The TTC officer who issued her a ticket for having invalid fare media in January didn’t show up to present evidence in the case, and the prosecutor decided to withdraw the charge.
While she was happy to escape the $425 fine, Tudor was frustrated to not get the chance to explain her case because she believes it exposes flaws at the TTC.
Tudor, a retired former secretary with the Waterloo Region District School Board who lives in Kitchener, said she got the ticket while taking her sister to a cancer treatment appointment. Fare inspectors at St. Clair station fined her for not having a proper transfer.
Tudor blamed a faulty transfer machine. She said she got the transfer at Dundas West station at around 9 a.m., before boarding a bus up to St. Clair Ave., but the machine erroneously timestamped it 9 p.m. the night before.
Tudor decided to investigate.
She said she went back to Dundas West after her sister’s treatment and tested the transfer machines, and found that one was still miscalibrated, issuing tickets stamped with a time 12 hours off. She had her sister return a few days later, and said that the machine was still giving the wrong time. She brought the transfers to court as evidence.
“How many tickets were given to Torontonians (while machines weren’t working)?” she asked.
“The system is falling apart.”
Tudor took the time to come to Toronto from Kitchener and attend her court date in the hope of having the justice of the peace officially exonerate her.
“It’s the principle that I didn’t get a chance for the judge to say, ‘you’re innocent,’” she said.
“I was ready to go to Supreme Court.”
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr