Reckless-Driving Acquittal Again Shows Proofreading Is Not Just for Dorks

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Yes, I am one of those irritating people who is always pointing out typos, stray apostrophes, unhyphenated compound adjectives, and so forth. It’s been a while since I was scrawny enough to be beaten up for this, but I know it can be irritating. But my feeling now is that, if you roll your eyes at this kind of stuff, that’s fine – just don’t be a lawyer. Because it does matter sometimes.

Here’s another example: in Fairfax County, Virginia, it will be legal at least until January to zoom past stopped school buses even if they are loading or unloading children, because for the last 40 years nobody in the state legislature has noticed that the word “at” was dropped from a reckless-driving statute.

I need to pause here and refer readers to my comical yet binding disclaimer which clearly states that I am not giving legal advice, and here specifically I do not really think it is “legal” to zoom past a stopped school bus, nor would I ever advise anyone so to zoom. Please don’t do that. Okay? Okay.

I am just reporting the fact that a Virginia judge acquitted John Mendez of zooming past a stopped school bus, holding that Mendez did not violate this statute:

A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

Va. Stat. § 46.2-859.

Read literally, you see, the law requires all drivers to “stop . . . any school bus” (not “at any school bus”) that such drivers may come across if said bus is taking on or discharging children. Neither the fact that such a school bus is already stopped, nor the fact that this interpretation is completely absurd for many reasons, would be a defense to the charge of failing to stop a stopped school bus. Conversely, zooming past such a bus is not illegal, at least according to the judge who dismissed the charge against Mendez.

The first judge to hear this argument said she was “intrigued,” but still rejected it. Mendez appealed, pointing out that the legislature had removed the “at” when the law was amended in 1970. His lawyer was also armed with state case law requiring strict interpretation of statutes, and also – remarkably – a grammatical analysis by an English professor who opined that the at-less sentence “conveys a clear if not very reasonable meaning.” Apparently believing he had no choice, the circuit-court judge acquitted Mendez, a decision that can’t be appealed. (“This is the greatest moment ever,” exulted Mendez, although it wasn’t.)

This has at least gotten the legislature’s attention. “That’s not good,” said a delegate quoted by the Washington Post. “That needs to be fixed.” Right both times. But he also pointed out that even an “emergency” bill would not take effect until late January. That could make for an exciting holiday season in Virginia.

Except that, as a practical matter, very few judges are likely to interpret this statute so strictly, because of the many cases that give them at least some leeway to avoid absurd results. Also, it is pretty clear from the context (and common sense) that stopping at school buses, not stopping stopped ones, was what the legislature had in mind. Also, my guess is that prosecutors will be able to find a better-drafted law of some kind that would apply, especially if somebody gets hurt. So add that to your list of reasons to stop at school buses, but leave the stopped ones alone.