As the Washington Post wrote this week, two little letters were all a Virginia man, or more accurately all his attorney, needed to get out of a reckless driving citation for illegally passing school buses.
According to the Post, somehow an error dating back to 1970 made its way into the language, which makes a motorist guilty of reckless driving if the person "fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus" engaged in loading or unloading students.
Yes, you correctly read Virginia Code 46.2-859. Motorists are guilty seemingly if they fail to get out of their car, board the bus, presumably unseat the bus driver and bring the bus to a stop themselves. No one at the Virginia Department of Education was available for comment at this writing.
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Marcus D. Williams ruled that John G. Mendez could only be found guilty "if he failed to stop any school bus." It's a loophole any savvy motorist or attorney can take advantage of, that is until the state legislature fixes the mistake and adds the preposition "at" before the phrase "any school bus." Post reporter Tom Jackman wrote that the key word was deleted when the legislature amended the law 40 years ago.
Added Judge Williams: "I hope that this is addressed so we don't have to keep dealing with this." Williams heard the case on appeal after a lower court "wasn't buying" attorney Eric Clingan's argument. The prosecution countered that the intent of the law was clear, but a 2005 state Supreme Court ruling found that all General Assembly amendments to state law are essentially to be taken verbatim and no judge is allowed to interpret any statute differently than as it is written.
State Del. David Albo told the Post the current law is "not good" and that the language "needs to be fixed." But that will likely not happen at least January, when the state legislature is again in session.
While the ruling cannot be appealed, Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh told the Post that an 1892 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that, "If a literal construction of the words of a statute be absurd, the act must be so construed as to avoid the absurdity." He also said a state Supreme Court case said that "the plain, obvious, and rational meaning of a statute is always to be preferred to any curious, narrow, or strained construction." Therefore, according to the ruling, "We must assume the legislature did not intend to do a vain and useless thing."
Meanwhile, motorist Mendez called his case being thrown out on a technicality "the greatest moment ever." But certainly, the law as written is not very good for Virginia's school bus-riding children.