How exploring sewers can get you arrested. A personal account of experiences involving the law
The past month or so has been interesting, to say the least. I suppose that followers of this site are used to sporadic updates by now. Usually it’s because other things are keeping me busy or distracted and while my trip to Greece has certainly kept me busy, this last bout of inactivity stemmed from more serious matters.
A local news broadcast from Toronto is a good a primer to the situation:
While I could probably write an entire entry detailing the inaccuracies of that one report, it did get a few key details correct. A friend and I were arrested after a passerby noticed the two of us entering a sewer system in a residential area of Toronto and decided to call the police. While we were underground, blissfully unaware of the situation brewing above us, an entire fleet of emergency response teams were brought in to investigate the situation.
It was obvious that they reacted to the situation without knowing just who or what they were dealing with; this isn’t exactly the sort of thing that happens on a routine basis in any city. Workers proceeded to enter the sewer via a winch and harness system. They assumed that conditions below them were too dangerous to navigate, so only travelled as far through the system as the ropes they were tethered to allowed.
Getting caught was the result of bad luck, but also poor decisions, the kind that are easy to make after doing this for years without ever having faced any serious consequences. You begin to feel less nervous about doing things over time, like opening up manhole covers while other people are nearby. You start to forget about the little things that can often lead to consequences.
While I’ve had run-ins with various people (including police officers) in the past, misunderstandings have usually been cleared up on the spot. Based on what I’ve heard, this has generally been the case with other people around the world involved in similar activities. So it’s easy to feel complacent and maybe even a bit cocky, but I suppose it was a given that something like this would happen eventually.
After the police discovered the two of us, or rather, after we gave ourselves up, we were brought to the station (yes, in handcuffs) and questioned individually. My policy is always to be up-front about everything I do. I showed them the pictures on the camera , told them why I was down there, gave them the URL for this site and hoped for the best.
Some officers found the situation humourous, while others were astonished that two people would deliberately enter what they thought was a shit-infested tunnel that spelled instant death. It seemed as though everyone there who had never set foot underground before in their lives was suddenly an expert. “You two are lucky to be alive!”
Aside from their concern, jokes were made and compliments were paid to our photography, but it was hard to laugh along or feel flattered knowing that there was a chance that I might receive a criminal record. In most scenarios, a situation like this would warrant a provincial-level trespassing fine, which is a touch more expensive than a parking ticket. That wasn’t going to be the case here.
After several hours we were fingerprinted and had our mugshots taken, and the two of us were let go for the night, and told that under no circumstances were we to talk to one another outside of legal council. Of course, we were also forbidden to enter sewers or areas related to “public works.”
After arriving home, interview requests started showing up in my inbox from various media outlets who had caught wind of the story, probably by listening in on events using police scanners. They only escalated over the course of the day. Knowing how often dialogue can be misquoted or taken out of context, I decided it was best not to respond to any of it. I also avoided commenting on the situation on my site.
The following day, our man bites dog story had officially entered the daily news cycle and while a lot of it was inaccurate and exaggerated, it didn’t go as terribly as I expected. Maybe this was the result of the two of us having a good amount of material online that even the laziest of journalists could use as a reference point. It probably also helped having intelligent people who spoke well on our behalf. Also, if the comments left on news sites were any indication, there was a good deal of public support behind us. (And anyone who reads online comments knows that they’re often the last place you can expect to find support.)
24 hours later news agencies had moved onto the next big strange story, which was something of a relief. I’m not adverse to being in the media, but I disliked the idea of having what I do being framed around the arrest. The legal aspect isn’t something that I generally talk about here, partly because I feel it would be distracting, but also because I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression that it’s a reason why I do any of this.
While the criminal charge was considered to be light, the following days I, along with my wife, were a bit nervous about what might happen. The court date was set at the end of the month, but not having ever been in this sort of situation before, we were dependent on the generous levels of support and advice we received from family, friends and strangers alike.
The more advice we received, the clearer it became that the charge of mischief wasn’t something that would stick in relation to our situation. At the same time, we decided it would be a good idea to obtain some form of legal representation. We wasted no time in finding a lawyer who confirmed that it would be difficult to find us guilty of a charge that’s usually reserved for acts of vandalism or other activities where ill-intent is involved. Still, it wasn’t clear how long it might take for the charges to be dropped or how much any of it was going to cost us financially.
As was anticipated, the charges were eventually withdrawn. We received this good news a couple of weeks ago during the first leg of my hiatus here in Greece and are relieved to put it behind us. Plus, I’m glad I can now talk to my friend without requiring the presence of a lawyer.
While Athens seems to have its share of things worth seeing below street level, it’s not worth the risk – any run-ins with the law here might turn out worse than the one in Toronto. Language barriers, unclear trespassing laws and one of the highest urban population densities in the world probably wouldn’t make for the best combination. Aside from this though, I’m looking forward to photographing another city using a different frame of reference. And I still have a backlog of entries to post about Montreal that I’ll post over the next few months.
Lastly, I’d like to thank everyone who offered their support during the course of this past ordeal. I feel indebted to those who took the time to send kind words or to offer advice. It would be easy for something like this to make me feel discouraged or defeated, but on the contrary, I’m left feeling more validated. Thank you for your kindness.
The Hour (based on an interview I did for a local paper)
Spacing Montreal article
Mischief, as defined by the Canadian Criminal Code
The Garrison creek and sewer system