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Court, jail awaits B.C. drivers who defy U.S. traffic tickets

A growing number of B.C. motorists are getting a nasty surprise after ignoring speeding tickets issued in Washington State because they don't think the long arm of Uncle Sam can reach them.

Blaine city administrators say many Canadians are regularly appearing in court there to face criminal charges of driving while under license suspension that stem from unpaid traffic tickets.

The typical case involves a B.C. motorist who gets caught speeding in Washington and ignores the ticket because they think they're immune to U.S. enforcement.

But about three months after the ticket is issued – if it's not paid or disputed – state authorities declare that driver's B.C. licence suspended in Washington.

The next time the driver crosses the border they're nabbed instantly by U.S. authorities for driving while suspended.

Blaine deputy court administrator Raylene King said the courthouse there is seeing a "rash of Canadians" coming as a result.

Wednesday's court docket in Blaine featured 11 arraignments of accused making first appearances, nine of them for driving while suspended.

Blaine immigration lawyer Len Saunders says it's the same scene each Wednesday morning – a courthouse jammed with Canadians arriving to face the music.

"They get a speeding ticket and they blow it off thinking 'The Americans can't do anything because I'm a Canadian,'" said Saunders. "Wrong idea."

The typical penalty there for driving while suspended is a $500 or $600 fine on top of the unpaid ticket, although the maximum is $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail.

But that's not the biggest problem for many hapless B.C. drivers.

Because driving while suspended is a criminal misdemeanor, the conviction means instant loss of the Nexus card that gives many B.C. shoppers speedy access over the border.

"Canadians have no clue what problems they can get into at the border if they fail to pay a speeding ticket," Saunders said. "And it's becoming more and more common."

He ties the increase to the growing frenzy of Canadians coming to Blaine to use U.S. mail boxes and other e-commerce package shipping services who then discover local police tightly enforce the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit in town.

Saunders doesn't defend criminal cases, but typically gets hired by Canadians desperate to reinstate Nexus passes.

"That's what a lot of people are worried about – having their Nexus cards gone."

It's possible to avoid or appeal the Nexus loss, but Saunders said in many cases the card is gone for 10 years.

Saunders said suspended drivers who come back to Blaine for court must make sure they don't drive themselves across the border or they'll be nailed for a second offence.

There's no disputing that they were driving at the border because automated cameras photograph drivers as they roll up to the booths.

Solo drivers busted at the border typically get towed back to Canadian soil because it's illegal for them to even drive that far.

An even worse fate awaits those who ignore the court summons for driving while suspended and then try to cross the border again – regardless of whether they're driver or passenger.

"A warrant for their arrest gets issued," Blaine prosecutor Rajeev Majumdar said. "And then when they cross the border they actually get arrested and taken to jail."

Saunders knows one B.C. woman who was handcuffed at the Highway 15 truck crossing and held overnight in Whatcom County jail on a four-year-old speeding ticket that had morphed into a driving-while-suspended charge.

By the time the husband hired a U.S. lawyer and bailed his wife out of jail, the cost of dealing with what had been a $124 ticket had soared to $4,000.

"He was furious, he couldn't believe it," Saunders said.

"I'd be terrified if it was me," said King, who encourages Canadians to dispute a ticket they consider unjust.

"Ignoring it isn't the correct option. It's going to come back to bite you."

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