By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
The Fairfax County man who ushered a gaggle of geese across a busy highway -- and was given a jaywalking ticket for his troubles -- might get a legal reprieve.
A Fairfax judge told him Monday that he probably broke the law but that if he stays out of trouble for six months, the case will be dismissed.
Jozsef Vamosi, 60, was not formally convicted or acquitted after a brief trial before Fairfax General District Court Judge Thomas E. Gallahue. The judge did order Vamosi to pay court costs, normally about $68. But when Vamosi went to the clerk's window, he was told he owed nothing. The costs might also be dismissed when Vamosi returns to court in January.
Vamosi said he was driving on the Fairfax County Parkway one morning in June when he saw three large Canada geese and eight smaller ones edging onto the highway, just south of the Dulles Toll Road. Vamosi said he pulled over in the left lane, helped the geese across the northbound lanes, then stepped into the southbound lanes, stopped cars with one hand and waved the geese over with the other.
On Monday, Fairfax Officer Kevin J. Rusin gave his version. The officer said he was stopped on the southbound shoulder working an accident about 9:30 a.m. June 18, which he described as during rush hour. He saw Vamosi pull over and "watched the defendant get out and actually chase the geese" across the road.
"He actually ran out into the middle of the highway," Rusin said. "There were numerous vehicles. I'm estimating about 15. They had to slam on their brakes very hard. It almost caused a crash or pileup in the middle of the highway."
Rusin said he hurried to the impromptu animal crossing and repeatedly ordered Vamosi to get out of the road. "He told me no, repeatedly. He told me he was trying to save the geese."
Vamosi turned to the judge and said: "I think I do what I have to do. That's the way I was raised. If I don't act, I'm guilty towards myself."
Gallahue said he was sympathetic to Vamosi while acknowledging that some people in Fairfax are not fans of the increasingly omnipresent geese.
"The problem that I see in what happened," the judge said, "is what Officer Rusin was saying. He heard people had to come to very quick stops, hard stops. There were what he believed to be several close calls."
Gallahue recalled a case from his first year on the bench in which a driver swerved to avoid a squirrel in the road. Instead, the driver struck and killed a pedestrian.
"I think we have to be careful when we do a thing we think is for the greater good," Gallahue said, "that the consequence isn't more dangerous."
The state and county code says that "pedestrians shall not carelessly or maliciously interfere with the orderly passage of vehicles" and calls for a fine of as much as $250.
"I think you violated the code section," Gallahue concluded. "I don't think it was the best thing for you to do. I don't know what the best thing is to do."
So the judge ruled: "You pay the court costs. I'll continue it for six months," and if Vamosi has had no other violations, "I'll dismiss it after six months."
Vamosi said he was pleased with the ruling. He said Gallahue had "a complicated situation" and that maybe the law wasn't clear enough. He said that he did not want to argue with the officer and that he supports the police.
But he also said he would take the same steps again if confronted with feathered pedestrians. "I think most people would do the same. I hope so," Vamosi said.
Some lawyers watching the case on the regular Monday morning traffic docket noted that Gallahue had a tough call because of the alternative if Vamosi hadn't stopped. If Vamosi had run over the geese, veteran lawyer Mark J. Yeager noted, "cars are going to come to a screeching halt, regardless." He also noted that Canada geese are a federally protected species and that it is illegal to "take, capture or kill" them under federal law.
"I think a prudent driver would feel obliged to stop," Yeager said. "If the prudent driver did that, everybody else behind him is going to stop."