One time in fourth grade, we had a quiz on prepositions. The task was to write down as many as we could remember. There are 49 major prepositions in the English language. I got 48 out of 49. The one I missed: the elusive “at.” Apparently, so did the Virginia legislature.
A school bus; a stop sign; a missing “at.” Not exactly the elements of an episode of Criminal Minds – at best, the forces underlying an Encyclopedia Brown story.
Alas, a Virginia law – likely familiar to anyone who has ever been stopped in traffic behind a school bus letting those fourth graders off from a day of school involving some analogous grammar quiz – didn’t quite say what it presumably meant to say.
“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.”
It sounds clear, right? Well, read it again – it technically could be read to say that a person is guilty of reckless driving . . . who fails to stop . . . any school bus . . . stopped on [any road].
You’re thinking, “no way!” It’s obvious that the law meant that other drivers have to stop their own cars – not stop the school bus! Obvious as it may seem, a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge recently held true to the literal language of the statute and thus determined, at the end of a brief trial of a motorist who did not himself stop at the bus, that the defendant could be held guilty only if he actually “failed to stop [the] school bus.”
It’s a criminal statue, and the canons of statutory interpretation advise that we must read such laws restrictively. If the intent was clear, then so should have been the statutory language. However, as the Washington Post article about the incident reports, the preposition “at,” on which the entire case turns, was specifically deleted in 1970 when the law was amended. Presumably because it was deemed understood?
Ambiguous? Maybe. Clear? Not at all. The omitting of the preposition “at” proved to be the linchpin of the acquittal. Who knew that that list of 49 was so powerful? Kudos to the defendant’s lawyer for reminding us that grammar matters, well beyond fourth grade.
by Professor Christy DeSanctis