This week, the Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments in an appeal from a Quebec case in which a woman was arrested and ticketed by police for refusing to hold the handrail on an escalator at a metro station in Laval. At issue is whether the pictogram on the escalator depicting someone holding the handrail was a warning or a legal obligation.
In 2009, a female commuter was arrested and ticketed by a Laval police officer for refusing to hold onto an escalator handrail.
The commuter was in the metro station when the police officer ordered her to respect the pictogram on the escalator and hold the handrail. The pictogram depicted a stick-figure holding the handrail and said “Caution, hold the handrail” in French. The commuter refused and began arguing with the police officer. He detained her for about 30 minutes before she was released with two tickets: a $100 ticket for failing to hold the handrail and a $320 ticket for failing to identify herself.
She contested the tickets in municipal court and was acquitted. She then filed a lawsuit against the city and the police officer for $24,000 for moral damages, pain, suffering and exemplary damages. She also sued the transit corporation for $45,000 for moral and punitive damages.
The police officer and the city argued that the police officer was legally authorized to act in the performance of his duties at the time of the incident and that he did so with prudence, diligence and skill. The police officer was merely enforcing s. 4(e) of the transit corporation’s regulation, which stated that it was prohibited for any person to “disobey a directive or pictogram” posted by the transit corporation.
Lower Court Decisions
The Court of Quebec rejected the commuter’s claims. The court found that the police officer’s conduct was, under the circumstances, exemplary and beyond reproach. It stated that not only did he not commit a fault, he had followed all instructions and training plans provided to the police. Instead, the court found that it was the commuter who illegally and stubbornly refused to obey a peace officer’s order by refusing to hold the escalator handrail and to identify herself.
The Court of Quebec also rejected her arguments against the transit corporation. The court found the rules and guidelines were clear and the regulation and its implementation were beyond reproach.
The Quebec Court of Appeal rejected the commuter’s appeal. The majority of the court agreed with the lower court’s decision that the police officer had not committed a fault and was enforcing the transit corporation’s regulation. It found that the police officer was justified in issuing a ticket based on the transit corporation’s regulation prohibiting anyone from disobeying “a directive or pictogram”.
Instead, the majority of the Court of Appeal found that the commuter was the artisan of her own misfortune. The court stated that she should have cooperated with the police officer, who was merely doing his job, and contested the tickets later. The court found that her reaction was disproportionate under the circumstances.
In contrast, the dissenting judge of the Court of Appeal found that the trial judge had erred in law in determining that there was a legal obligation to hold the handrail. The dissenting judge stated that the pictogram indicating “hold the handrail” did not have force of law since it would then be a prohibited delegation of a regulatory power. The judge also found that the pictogram did not establish an obligation, but rather conveyed a warning. He stated that s. 4(e) of regulation could not create a criminal offence for non-compliance with a pictogram because it would be a prohibited delegation of regulatory power from the transit corporation to the person or the entity responsible for making and displaying pictograms.
Finally, the dissenting judge found that the pictogram merely communicated a warning to hold the handrail and did not express a “directive” or order to act in a certain way, nor did it express the prohibition of a certain behaviour (i.e., that it is forbidden to descend the escalator without holding the handrail). Therefore, he stated that the court could not legally blame the commuter for disobeying a message that was in fact a cautionary statement.
Supreme Court of Canada
At the hearing in front of the Supreme Court of Canada, the commuter’s lawyer argued that the case was about civil liberties. He said the officer had no right to demand the commuter’s name and that she had no obligation to heed the pictogram.
A lawyer for the city told the court that the officer’s actions were reasonable and that the situation could have been avoided if the commuter had simply identified herself.
At one point during the proceedings, Justice Clement Gascon said: “I suppose if we were to give tickets to people not holding the handrail, we’d be issuing hundreds per hour.” Gascon also stated that determining whether a pictogram depicting someone holding the handrail was prudent advice or an order was the “core of the debate.”
It will likely take several months before the Supreme Court of Canada releases its decision.
The pictograms are still displayed in metro stations in Quebec.
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