Ontario woman arrested, jailed in U.S. for driving with a Canadian licence

An Ontario woman is looking for an apology from the Georgia police officer who arrested, handcuffed and charged her because she was driving with a Canadian licence.

 “It was the most horrendous incident of my life,” said Emily Nield. “It was mortifying. I was terrified the entire time.”

About a month ago, the 27-year-old was driving through Georgia to Tennessee, where she had just completed a master’s degree in geology. Nield’s route took her along the I-75, which is often used by Canadians making the trek to and from Florida.

That’s where she was pulled over for speeding, and the officer asked to see her licence. Nield handed over her Ontario driver’s licence, but wasn’t prepared for the officer’s reaction.

“She kept saying, ‘No, Canadian licences are not accepted,'” said Nield. “I was flabbergasted. I just kept saying this can’t be right — a Canadian licence is always valid.”

Nield told CBC Toronto she was then asked to prove she was Canadian and although she had copies of her passport, Nexus card, and birth certificate on her phone, the officer wanted to see an original hard copy.

“When I failed to produce it, she reached through the window of my car and she put handcuffs on me,” said Nield. “She told me that I have just been arrested for driving without a licence and that I needed to go to jail.”

In the back of the officer’s cruiser Nield managed to take a video on her cellphone and send it to friends on SnapChat. “I’m in cuffs. Help me! I don’t want to go to jail,” she says in the video as she breaks down in tears.

‘I never committed a crime’

At the police station Nield was charged with driving without a licence and speeding, for doing 87 m.p.h. in a 70 m.p.h. zone. Police took her mugshot and fingerprinted her.

“They kept saying ‘You’re now in the system. Any crime that’s going to be committed, your fingerprints are going to be searched,'” said Nield. “I never committed a crime.”

One of her friends was able to determine her location in Adel, through a feature on SnapChat, and called the sheriff’s office in Cooks County, Ga.

Nield said she was permitted to speak to her friend, but her requests to speak to the Canadian Consulate or her parents went unanswered.

Paid $880 to get out of jail

She said police told her she would remain in jail until her court appearance on June 12, unless she paid an $880 US bond in cash, which she didn’t have.

Eventually she was allowed to use her debit card and post her own bail. Nield said she also had to pay $200 to remove her car from the impound.

She stayed in the States while trying to get the charges dismissed and the arrest expunged, with the help of a friend’s father, who is a lawyer in Virginia, and the Canadian Consulate.

“I just kept thinking this would ruin me,” Nield told CBC Toronto. “Any job application you have to check a box. Are you a criminal? Have you ever been convicted or arrested for anything?”

According to the Georgia Department of Driver Services website, “non-U.S. citizens holding a valid foreign driver’s license are allowed to drive in the state of Georgia.”

The website goes on to explain “in the case of a driver license issued by the driver’s licensing authority of a foreign country, a law officer may consult a person’s passport or visa to verify the validity of such license, if available.”

Charges dismissed

Three days after Nield’s arrest, Matthew Bennett, the Cooks County probate court solicitor, agreed the charges should be dismissed and the judge signed off on it.

“I just felt like it probably became a bigger deal than it should have been considering that she was here studying — no prior trouble,” said Bennett.

He said the court, in consultation with Nield’s attorney, is taking measures to erase her arrest record. As of last week, he estimated it could take another couple of weeks to do so.

In the meantime he has some advice for Canadian drivers.

“Make sure that you have your passport or supporting documents along with your driver’s licence,” said Bennett. “I know I would if I was in a foreign country.”

Know the law

Nield  said she had copies of those on her phone, but doesn’t believe it would have made a difference if she had carried the originals, because the officer believed a Canadian driver’s licence was invalid.

“If you’re a police officer you should know your laws, especially the I-75 people going north,” said Nield. “There are so many snowbirds, and Canadians drive to Florida all the time for vacation.”

After finding out her arrest would be cleared from the system, Nield said she “cried with joy,” and last week she flew back to Canada.

Right now Nield is at home with her parents in Kleinburg, Ont., but she said she will still have to make another trip back to the U.S. to pick up her vehicle.

In the meantime, she wants the Cooks County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia to be held accountable, so it doesn’t happen again.

“At least with the officer who arrested me, I would love to see a formal reprimand,” said Nield. “That way she can learn that this is not right — an apology is what I would love the most.”

CBC Toronto has reached out to the Cooks County Sheriff’s Office several times but has yet to hear back.