My wife was taken aback when a police officer delivered a summons requiring me to appear in court. I assured her I hadn’t been up to any mischief lately… as far as I could remember. My memory being what it is since I had a brain injury did not give her much comfort.
I was surprised to find out that I was to appear as a witness to my own car accident. I found it rather strange, since I was the so called victim in an accident, to be called in as a witness
for the defense. The other driver was being charged since she hit me while I had the right of way when I approached the intersection.
I was wondering what good my testimony would be. Off course the light was green when I went through the intersection. Of course she made a dangerous left turn, going into the on-coming lane without being able to see if it was clear. That’s why I didn’t stop.
When I showed up for court and introduced myself to the crown attorney. She asked me only one question. What colour was the traffic light? My obvious answer was, “Green.” She told me we were going to trial as the other driver was contesting the charge against her. Her defense was that I had run a red light. She asserted this despite the statement from a disinterested witness who had a clear view of the whole scene unfolding in front of her.
After some formal introductions and statements being read, the driver pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. In the end the judge levied a fine of less than $50 and no demerit points. I was not called to take the stand since the accused had been convinced, just before the court went into session, pleading guilty to a lesser charge would service her interests better. Once the judge had issued her judgement the crown attorney came over to me, apologized for the light sentence and told me I was free to go home.
This conviction left me with a strong sense of injustice. The other driver’s poor judgement, or impatience, or inattentiveness has had a huge impact on my life not to mention many people I’m closely connect with.
My initial thoughts about the reduced sentence, being like a slap on the wrist was, “unfair”. On the other hand, a harsh penalty like a heavy fine and several demerit points would not have changed my circumstances. Further, I reasoned, she had not intended to cause bodily harm. However, I did take offense to her claim that I had run a red light. However, that was only in discussion with the crown attorney. That statement never came to the judge.
The crown attorney, in dealing with the matter, had no idea whether I had been injured in the accident or what kind of injury I had sustained. That was never part of the discussion. I had no reason to inform her. Though, my injury would likely have impacted my time on the stand if I had been called to witness.
I had been advised before going to court that the key issue was to have this matter settled in my favour. As long as the other driver was given a guilty verdict the court would have served my interests. The light sentence had no negative impact on her insurance. The guilty verdict has direct positive impact on my insurance. You could say that the greater injustice was done to the insurance company. They would not be able to collect a higher premium for the costs the other driver has incurred.
In the end, the court appearance was a bureaucratic exercise, not a place where justice would be meted out. Had I gone into the court feeling vindictive, I would still be unsettled about the plea and verdict. There have been court cases where the failure of the courts to decide a suitable sentence have been much more momentous. Good Friday historically not excepted.
Telling the Story
I had opportunity to tell the story of my court appearance several times. Needless to say, family members and friends found the ‘slap on the wrist’ sentence highly unfair. Understandably so.
In one conversation a woman was particularly outraged about the light sentence. She just couldn’t see how our court system would allow that. I then mentioned that the driver who ran into me was in her mid 70’s. That completely changed her opinion of the judge’s decision. Somehow the driver’s age had a huge positive impact on her sense of what is a fair sentence.
I reflected on that with her and suggested that if the driver had been a 21 year old male, her outrage would have been greater. She agreed. Then I took the discussion a step further. I asked her how she thought the conviction might have played out if the driver had been an aboriginal Canadian.
It would be pure speculation. However, based on the incarceration rates among the Canadian population a different verdict could have been very likely. Our biases run deep. Our biases have a way of blinding us to what is a fair conviction and sentence.
When someone messes up we are quite judicious before giving the benefit of the doubt. We will first size up the person. It seems like a person needs to earn the privilege of being judged less harshly. If we are through birth or other factors part of the right demographic we are awarded that privilege much more readily.
In a recent CBC discussion a rather telling and powerful phrase was shared in reference to the aboriginal population in Canada. One spokesperson was adamant that when it comes to aboriginal Canadians, they are over policed and under protected. It isn’t the lack of policing that is necessarily the problem. It is the manner in which they are treated, by the police, by the court system and by the prison system.
How often don’t we speak before we check our biases? Our biases have a way of colouring what we do and say.