Jaywalking to justice

New to Halifax, a student walks across the street, ignoring an officer of the law. Then came a week-end in jail, more than a year of his life and thousands of dollars to clear his name.

A guard led me into an empty shower area and ordered me to strip. "Drop your clothes in this bag," he told me. "Then bend over and cough." I hesitated for the moment it took me to realize he planned to inspect my anus for contraband. "Come on," the man urged me. "I don't enjoy this any more than you do."

I did as told, then showered and slipped on a set of prison-issue sweats. Next, the guard marched me through a maze of corridors to a large, silent cellblock. In the dark we mounted a set of stairs and stopped before an open unit: number 11. "Go inside and close the door behind you," the man instructed.

The heavy steel door resisted slightly before sliding easily to the right, engaging the lock with a definitive metallic clank. In the darkness I located a paper-thin mattress and lay down, hoping sleep would come sooner rather than later, while my mind raced to explain how in god's name I'd managed, just a month after moving to Canada, to end up in the Burnside Correctional Facility.

The Homecoming

My late-summer arrival in Halifax was a homecoming of sorts. Although I grew up mostly in the United States, I was born in Nova Scotia---to a pair of back-to-the-land Americans who headed south again before my third birthday. But I also lived briefly in Halifax in the late '90s and had always hoped to go back someday. That opportunity finally came in 2004, when I was accepted for a one-year journalism program at the University of King's College.

At the time, I was living on the other side of the world, in Chile, where I worked two years as a journalist. It was an exciting job in a fascinating country, yet I found myself drawn in by the option of returning to Halifax and of buttressing my writing experience with some formal training and an academic stamp of approval.

So I made the long trip to Canada, rented an apartment in the north end, began classes and settled into a comfortable routine. I especially enjoyed my afternoon walks home. Usually I listened to music. Thursday, September 16, was no exception when, lost in my headphones to Mana, an upbeat Mexican rock group, I skipped my way across the intersection at Quinpool and Robie.

It wasn't until after I'd reached the other side that I noticed constable Lana Gaudet glaring at me through the window of her patrol car. She pointed and motioned for me to approach. It was clear what the problem was. I'd jaywalked and now I was going to be reprimanded. "You've got to be kidding me," I thought as I looked straight ahead and continued walking.

I'd made it several yards onto the Common before I realized the constable had swung her vehicle around the block and was now speeding across a dusty baseball diamond---headed straight for me. I froze.

The next 25 minutes were both terrifying and incomprehensible. Skidding to a halt just in front of me, Gaudet sprang from her car shouting orders: "Hands up in the air. On the hood of the car. Behind your back." She cuffed me, then ripped the headphones from my ears. She confiscated my book bag and removed my wallet, making no efforts to conceal her rage. "You think this is funny?" she asked me. "You think it's funny to ignore a peace officer?" I thought it best not to answer.

I watched from the back of her car as Gaudet opened my bag and rifled through its contents. She did the same with my wallet, pausing to study an old Chilean ID card. "I was just going to give you a warning, but you thought you could just laugh at me," she said before issuing me with two tickets worth some $300 between them. It was almost half an hour before the police officer finally released me.

Once home I spent a few minutes contemplating my options. This was the kind of thing that would drive me crazy, ruining my year in Halifax. Instead, I decided I would just pay the fines and try to forget any of this ever occurred. I grabbed my chequebook and headed for the police department.

I strode purposefully toward the station and mounted the building's front steps. I glanced over to see a woman I thought I recognized heading out of the building. Without her uniform it took me a moment to realize it was Gaudet. I shook off the apparition, entered the station and presented myself at the front desk, where an attendant explained I'd need to go to the courthouse to pay my fines. "But they're closed now. You'll have to go tomorrow," he said.

Constable Gaudet was still there when I left the station. I felt an overpowering need to communicate with her. I wanted to ask how she could have treated someone so cruelly and to show I wasn't afraid. I needed to say something, anything. I crossed the street in her direction. She saw me and began walking away. I followed. She crossed another street. I crossed after her. Then, on the corner of Ahern and Rainnie---just below the Citadel---she stopped. I approached, realizing as I closed in there was nothing in fact I could say in this situation. "Hi, how are you doing?" I muttered, mustering a false bravado as I passed. "Fine thanks," I heard her say.

The Arrest

At approximately 3:30pm the next day, several uniformed police entered the foyer of the King's journalism school and promptly disappeared into the director's office. A minute later the director herself emerged and, as I was sitting nearby, called me over. The constables arrested me on the spot. "You're Chilean, right?" one of the men asked.

For the second time in 24 hours I found myself handcuffed in the back of a squad car. Only this time I'd been dragged out of school, past the perplexed eyes of my classmates and professors. I spent the next seven hours in the basement of the police station, where I was shuffled between a holding tank and a musty cell. At about 11pm, a pair of huge constables dragged me from the cell and forced me into the back of a paddywagon. "You think that was smart?" one of them asked me. "Hitting a police officer?" I said nothing. "Well it wasn't," he continued. "It was fucking stupid." A half hour later we arrived at the Burnside Correctional Facility.

The Charges

The police originally slapped me with three charges: uttering threats, intimidating a justice participant and assaulting a police officer. "He approached to my left at which time he put his shoulder into mine causing my backpack to come off my shoulder, not causing injury though," Gaudet wrote in her official report. The Canadian criminal code considers any "unwanted contact" to be assault. "He then turned and looked at me and said, 'Don't think I don't recognize you out of uniform,'" the report went on to say. There were other fabrications, too. Gaudet claimed she "chased (me) a short distance through the Common" and that later, just before our second encounter, she observed me "leaning up against the brick wall of the station."

The lies were boldfaced, but since more than a year would pass before the legal system finally offered me an opportunity to defend myself, they served nicely to jump-start a nightmarish process that would begin with a three-day jail stint. The timing of the arrest helped, too. It could hardly have been a coincidence that the police waited until late Friday afternoon, almost exactly when the nearby provincial court conducts its last bail hearing of the week.

Three Days In Burnside

I spent most of my first day in the Burnside jail in what's known as "lockdown." While the other temporary residents in the cellblock were allowed, starting at 8am, to mill about the common area, my cell remained closed. A guard served me breakfast through a slit in the door. Through that same crevice I peered out across the cellblock, trying to gauge my surroundings.

Time moved impossibly slowly, especially once my body refused more sleep and an itching sense of claustrophobia set in. When my cell door did finally click open, I ventured out tentatively and took a seat in the common area. A few of the inmates asked what I was in for. I shared my story. Some didn't believe me. "This guy goes to Dalhousie," one of the prisoners announced out loud. "Man, if I went to school there's no way I'd be in this place."

Prisoners played spades and swapped stories while others milled about, disappearing for minutes at a time into their respective cells. The smell of marijuana, smuggled in through condoms that inmates swallowed and later shat out, hung heavy over the cell block. Several men were tripping on acid.

On a couple of occasions guards passing into the cellblock commented on the smell. Tensions rose further still when a newcomer, suffering from an uncontrollable coughing fit, had to be escorted to the nursing station. "Blueberries, blueberries," some of the prisoners murmured when later, a group of blue-uniformed guards entered the block, climbed to the second floor and made a beeline for cell 11. "Who's in number 11?" someone asked. "I am," I said nervously.

It occurred to me I was being set up, that someone had planted drugs in my cell. "I'm being paranoid," I thought. Then again nothing seemed impossible at that point. The improbable had already taken place. I was, after all, in jail. The guards left without offering any explanation. Other prisoners looked at me curiously, wondering as I did why they would have gone into my cell. More time passed. Another group of guards came into the cellblock. "Number 11," one of them ordered. "Come with us."

I hyperventilated as the guard led me to a nurse's station. Dizzy, my heart pounding against my ribcage, I was now certain I'd been framed. Thrown in a cage among robbers and drug dealers, I was obviously the odd man out. Why wouldn't they drag me down with them? "They're not going to let me out of here," I thought.

A nurse reassured me the cell search was routine and had nothing to do with my being called to the medical clinic, where they simply needed to register me. I calmed somewhat, although later that night, before going to sleep, I got down on my hands and knees and for the first time in my life prayed to god.

The paranoia carried over to the next day when, handcuffed and manacled, I was taken to the courthouse in Halifax. For eight hours I sat in a basement holding cell, observing as my companions went one by one to their respective hearings. None were granted the release they'd hoped for. I had no reason to think my case would be an exception and prepared myself to join them on the ride back to Burnside.

Finally, at about 4pm, a guard led me upstairs into a packed courtroom. The proceedings took just seconds. A judge declared me free to walk on my own reconnaissance. When I arrived home an hour later the first thing I noticed was that someone had slashed one of my car tires.

The Wait

It would be difficult to overstate the disruption all this caused to my life. The stress was constant. Over the coming months I had trouble concentrating on school assignments. My marks dipped. When not at school, I found myself afraid to leave the house. I spent winter watching movies and reading.

A month after my release, the Crown dropped the two most serious charges, leaving just the assault and corresponding possibility of a six-month jail sentence. Trial was set for late March. In the meantime I wasn't allowed to leave either the country or the province of Nova Scotia. Barred from visiting my family in the States, I spent Christmas alone.

Three long months later the trial date finally arrived---and with it some apparently good news. The prosecutor was willing to offer me what's called a conditional discharge. In exchange for a plea of "no contest" the Crown would basically let the matter drop---no fines, no community service, no jail time. The matter, furthermore, would not be registered as a "conviction," meaning that if I were ever asked by a potential employer whether I'd been convicted of a crime, I could legally answer "no." The attorney seemed pleased with the offer but did add one caveat:

"If you think you may have bumped her, brushed her, made any physical contact whatsoever, then take the deal and we can all just go home," he said. "But if you're sure you didn't touch her in any way, as your attorney I cannot, ethically speaking, recommend you plead no contest."

The offer was tempting: an opportunity to put an immediate end to the six-month nightmare. Except I hadn't touched constable Gaudet. "No," I decided. "No deal."

The trial, it turned out, would have to wait. The court was overbooked. The next available court date wasn't until mid-November. In the meantime I'd finally be allowed to leave the country so, in April, when school ended, I drove to the States where I found temporary work as a labourer on a construction site.

The Trial

Constable Gaudet took the stand first. The prosecutor walked her through various incidents involved: the jaywalking, the arrest on the Common, the "assault" alongside the Citadel. Under cross-examination Gaudet faltered somewhat. The constable claimed that just after I knocked her backpack off, two off-duty police approached the scene of the crime. Only then, according to police reports, did I finally leave the area. Why, my lawyer wanted to know, had they not immediately arrested me? It's hard to believe, he suggested, that three trained police officers wouldn't have taken me down there and then.

Gaudet's handling of the questions was "defensive," said the judge, who described my testimony, in contrast, as "candid" and "sincere"---even self-incriminating at times. "Would it be fair to say you were angry at constable Gaudet?" the Crown prosecutor asked me at one point. "Yes," I replied.

"Frankly," the judge later said, "I believe him." I won the case. I heard the words "not guilty" and "acquitted" and it hit me, I was finally free to move on.

But the process had consumed more than a year of my life, several thousand dollars in legal fees and any goodwill I may have previously felt for the police. I haven't returned to Halifax since. Upon exiting the courthouse I shook my attorney's hand and thanked him. "She probably feels like she still screwed you," he said. I replied, "She did."

Walk this way
1. If you’re going to jaywalk, it’s important that you wait for a break in traffic.
2. Look both ways before you step into the street. Often, drivers will stop for you, especially if you’re walking a dog.
3. But, most importantly, don’t do it when you may incur the wrath a police officer who is busy ignoring vandalism and street violence in order to crack down on those crossing against the light.

Benjamin Witte is a journalist and photographer based in Santiago, Chile. He is the editor of the Patagonia Times, an English language news site focused on southern Chile. His areas of expertise include energy, farmed salmon and Chile’s ever-struggling professional basketball league.

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