The Globe and Mail, June 7, 2001
By: Kirk Makin, Justice Reporter
Roger Batuatala’s legal odyssey began innocently in mid-1998, when he and a friend bought a tow-rope so they could haul an aging engineless automobile.Toronto police officers stopped them twice within a few minutes, charging Mr. Batuatala each time for driving without insurance and driving with a suspended licence.
The case is still grinding its way through the courts, and Mr. Batuatala could face fines of $26,000 and 90 days in jail for steering the car with no engine. Mr. Batuatala, 34, said the fines and the endless court proceedings have destroyed his marriage and rendered him incapable of holding a steady job. “I really, really like this country,” said the former Zairean, who immigrated to Canada in 1994. “But this is making me change my mind. I don’t feel like a free man.”
“To my wife, I was like a criminal. I couldn’t support my family. My life is as an auto mechanic, but people are loath to give me work without a licence. I don’t know how I can survive.” Mr. Batuatala said he was disbelieving recently, when his lawyer, Edward Prutschi, told him that Crown prosecutor Andrew Smith intends to appeal a December ruling staying the charges for unreasonable trial delays. Mr. Smith did not respond to an interview request yesterday. However, his motive may be rooted in Mr. Batuatala’s three convictions for driving without insurance, two of them involving a licence suspension.
But Mr. Prutschi maintained this cannot justify the Crown’s pursuit of Mr. Batuatala for steering an engineless car. “This is prosecutorial discretion run amok,” he said. Where some may see Mr. Batuatala as incapable of learning his lesson, Mr. Prutschi sees a luckless man whose hopes of re-establishing a normal life are shattered. “How could this be in the public interest?” Mr. Prutschi asked. “Would a reasonable person think that before getting behind the wheel of a car being towed you need insurance and a driver’s licence?”
“Roger has been really stunned and shocked by the whole thing,” he said. “When I first met him in the Don Jail, his cellmates were people charged with sexual assault, running auto-theft rings or manslaughter. He said ‘Mr. Prutschi, I don’t belong here.’” Mr. Batuatala’s problems trace to his licence being suspended for $2000 to $3000 worth of unpaid parking tickets, many acquired while moving cars for employers. (Mr. Batuatala says he was ignorant of Canadian rules and officialdom and lacked the ability to pay.)
On the day he was charged for the towing incident, the police left Mr. Batuatala and his friend with their cars blocking traffic on a two-way street. “We had to move the car from an improper place where it was disturbing people,” he said yesterday. “In not even two minutes, another police car came. I was charged with the same things.” In late 1998, a few days before his trial date, Mr. Batuatala went to Montreal in a commercial car pool. He attempted to return the night before his trial, but the car-pool vehicle broke down in Kingston.
Unable to get a bus to Toronto and with virtually no cash, Mr. Batuatala slept in the bus station and waited for a friend to drive from Toronto to pick him up. They arrived at Old City Hall courthouse on Dec. 8, 1998, two hours late for the trial. Mr. Batuatala was told he had been convicted in absentia. He said he learned of the enormous fine and jail term several months later when he returned from a trip to Germany with one of his three young children.
After noticing that he had an outstanding sentence, Customs officials called the police. Mr. Batuatala was strip-searched and jailed for three weeks. The Crown agreed to a new trial after Mr. Prutschi explained why Mr. Batuatala missed the original. Mr. Prutschi said he then made seven unsuccessful attempts for disclosure of police evidence. In December, a justice of the peace stayed proceedings because of the delays. Mr.
Batuatala said that if their appeal of that ruling succeeds and he is convicted, he has no way to pay the fines.
Mr. Prutschi continued to represent Mr. Batuatala through the appeal and succeeded in winning a full acquittal.
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