Grammar Police Fail

 

So everyone from the Washington Post to Fark is reporting gleefully about the recent acquittal of a Northern Virginia man charged with failing to stop for a school bus picking up kids.  The defense attorney is getting kudos for pointing out that the law, when rewritten 40 years ago, omitted the word “at.”  The resulting language, agreed the judge, only criminalizes a driver who fails to stop a school bus that was stopped.  Absurd, but Virginia doesn’t let judges add words to statutes by interpretation, even if they’re absurd.

So far, so good.  We’re all in favor of forcing the government to do its job properly before being able to impose a criminal punishment.  And one of our pet peeves is poorly-drafted statutes and regulations, many of which seem to have been written by junior high dropouts.  Passing a stopped school bus is incredibly dangerous and richly deserving of criminalization, but we have no problem with someone getting off on a technicality of bad drafting.  A poorly or vaguely drafted statute does not provide the notice of criminal liability that is a basic element of Due Process, and the state shouldn’t be allowed to punish someone for violating it. (See “Honest Services.”)

But on actually reading the statute, we have to say the judge screwed up.  Here’s what it says:

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.

The error here is not the omission of the word “at” after the word “stop.”  It’s the inclusion of a gratuitous comma after the word “direction” — a comma which is artless, but nonetheless does not change the meaning of the sentence.

Here’s the sentence with the “at” included:

A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop at, 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.

That reads even worse.  That’s where the “at” was before amendment.  (But the statute also had a lot of other language as well that was deleted or replaced.  It read fine before it was amended.)

Here’s the sentence with the gratuitous comma removed:

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.

This makes perfect grammatical sense.  It’s still artlessly written, but it scans.  You’re guilty if there’s a bus stopped to pick up or drop off kids, and you don’t stop, no matter whether you’re coming from behind or ahead or the side.

As written, it still says that.  The extra comma (a bane of ancient legal writing) doesn’t change the meaning one way or the other.

Speaking as a card-carrying Grammar Nazi, the judge was simply wrong to think it meant you’re guilty if you fail to stop a school bus you approached.  The same misreading could be used to say you’re guilty if you fail to stop your own car for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.  The Commonwealth cannot appeal from an acquittal, so this case is over, but the defense really was in the wrong here.

How would we have written it?  To convey the same meaning, we’d probably draft something like this:

A person is guilty of reckless driving if he fails to come to a full stop a safe distance away from a school bus that is stopped on any road for the purpose of taking on or discharging children, regardless of the direction in which he is traveling.

Or some such.

Anyway.  Kudos to the defense lawyer — it’s still a perfectly valid victory, and in a way it’s nice to have a foolish judicial decision in the defense’s favor for a change.  But it’s a good thing that driver didn’t hit a kid.  His actions still count as reckless under any definition of the word.

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