I was driving her to kindergarten but it was my five-year-old daughter – aided and abetted by a perceptive police officer – who taught me a lesson that morning.
It was the fall of 1987 and the mandatory use of seat belts had just become law on P.E.I. Clearly, I was aware because I duly ensured my daughter was buckled in before we left our driveway. But, presumably because it was such a short drive to kindergarten, I didn’t feel the need to buckle up myself. And so, when the siren pierced the early-morning air and the flashing red lights of a police cruiser filled my rearview mirror, I knew I had been caught violating the new law. Mea culpa.
After taking my papers to his cruiser and reviewing them for what seemed like an eternity, the constable returned with a reminder about the fine for driving without being buckled (about $100, as I recall, and three demerit points off my driver’s licence). Then, complimenting my pre-school daughter for putting on her seatbelt, he strongly suggested her father take a lesson. He passed me a warning ticket, advised me to buckle up and told us to have a nice day.
It happened more than 30 years ago but I’ve never forgotten the break I caught that morning from a perceptive officer who used his discretion to help convince me to buckle up. I gratefully did, and the officer might be pleased to know I’ve never been given a ticket or even another warning for failing to strap a seatbelt over my shoulder.
Clearly, there are times when a written warning can be just as effective as a fine to deter the guilty party from re-offending.
That said, I’ve never questioned the constable’s right to charge and fine me, nor would I find fault with a conservation officer who found himself in a similar position last week. The officer had a decision to make when he encountered an 86-year-old visitor to P.E.I. who was fishing without a licence. It’s required here but not in Ontario where the man lives. He was charged and fined $275. His fishing rod was taken away.
The officer was doing his job and – as retired conservation office Gerald MacDougall wrote in this space earlier this week – he should not be scorned or given a hard time for enforcing an existing law designed to protect wildlife and environment. MacDougall is quite right when he suggests if we don’t like a law, we should lobby government to have it changed. Hopefully, politicians who found this case to be unjust were listening.
But I also hope this case will remind all enforcement officers they are allowed and sometimes encouraged to use their discretion, when appropriate, to issue a warning rather than to charge and fine offenders. A warning to the senior fisherman likely would have been enough to deter him from re-offending, just as a warning convinced me to consistently buckle up all those years ago.
I think everyone was happy to learn the senior’s fine was later stayed, and that his fishing rod was replaced by an anonymous donor.
Hopefully he’ll return to the Island and next time, if he wants to go fishing, lawmakers will have seen to it that he and fellow seniors won’t need a licence at all.
- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.