The mother of a six-month-old baby said she was fined $880 for “standing around too long” with her child and dog in a park in Aurora, Ontario.
Roxana D., 29, went for a walk to Edward Coltham Park around 4 p.m. on April 18, with her baby in a stroller and her dog. When she arrived, she said there were around a dozen people in the park, including other moms with kids.
Parks in Aurora are closed due to COVID-19, but their pathways are still open for people to walk along.
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Roxana, who doesn’t want her last name used due to privacy concerns, said she was walking along a path and pulled under a gazebo to wait for three people to pass. She stood there for a couple of minutes and answered a text before moving back onto the path when it was clear.
That’s when Roxana said a Town of Aurora car bolted across the path and cut her off.
“It was like a scene out of Cops if I had been a fugitive,” she said.
Roxana said Aurora bylaw officer Mario Munguia got out of the vehicle and told her, “you were standing around too long.” According to Roxana, he said he’d been watching her from afar and that she’d been “standing for over two minutes.”
She said he told her there was a zero-tolerance policy and that he was going to issue her a fine.
Roxana said she was shocked; she’d expected him to make some kind of argument over the use of amenities (she said she didn't use any).
“I didn’t know standing in a park was a crime,” she said.
She said Munguia was not wearing any personal protective equipment nor did he maintain 6 -feet of distance from her.
She said Munguia informed her she had two weeks to fight the ticket and said, “if you plead not guilty, I will be there with all my evidence.”
The ticket, which VICE has viewed, cites the violation of failing to comply with an order made during a declared emergency.
Roxana followed up with an email to Aurora’s bylaw manager, Alexander Wray, asking why she was ticketed for using a pathway and why Munguia didn’t wear any PPE.
In his response, which VICE has viewed, Wray said “the Town has made it clear that only trails and pathways are open to be walked on.” He said, officers began issuing tickets due to a “lack of compliance.” Wray also said bylaw officers can break social distancing rules in order to issue fines.
In a statement emailed to VICE, the Town of Aurora said it is “now in a strict enforcement mode for provincial emergency orders and trespassing on closed municipal properties,” and that violators face fines starting at $880. It did not answer specific questions about Roxana’s fine, citing privacy concerns.
Aurora did not say how many tickets it has issued so far.
Stephen Warner, spokesman for Ontario’s solicitor general Sylvia Jones, told VICE, “there is no provincial emergency order prohibiting individuals from being outside.”
The fine speaks to a larger problem about heavy-handed enforcement of COVID-19-related measures in parks, where people are being fined and hassled for sitting on benches, walking their dogs too slowly, or making genuine mistakes.
Last week, following articles by VICE and other outlets, Toronto decided to stop issuing tickets for sitting on benches.
Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the organization has received more than 100 complaints about overzealous bylaw enforcement.
Bryant said more and more, it feels like there’s a “presumption of guilt as soon as somebody steps outside.”
“We’re in the middle of a policing pandemic in Canada, where bylaw officers untrained, unqualified, and unaccountable are walking around with way too much testosterone in everything they do,” he said.
He described the ticketing of Roxana as a “stakeout.”
“The entire situation is absurd,” he said, noting that her privacy rights are being compromised when she’s being surveilled while in the park.
Bryant also noted that Ontario has suspended deadlines for disputing tickets until the pandemic is over. But if municipalities, including Aurora, are getting that wrong, people may end up paying the fines because they think they have no choice, Bryant said.
Bryant said people who get ticketed should comply with requests for identification, because refusing could result in higher fines or additional charges. But he said people can ask questions such as: Am I under arrest? Am I being charged? Am I free to go? A person can also let a bylaw officer or cop know that they are recording the interaction.
Bryant described the situation as “COVID carding,” and said it will acutely affect homeless people and people of colour.
Roxana said she’s been for one walk since being ticketed, because she now feels paranoid about getting another ticket. Ironically, walking is an activity that usually helps her manage her anxiety.
She plans on fighting the ticket.