Dropped 'at' in Va. law yields acquittal in school bus case

"This is the greatest moment ever," says John Mendez of Woodbridge, whose reckless-driving trial in Fairfax County didn't last long.
"This is the greatest moment ever," says John Mendez of Woodbridge, whose reckless-driving trial in Fairfax County didn't last long. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)

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By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 10:17 PM

Virginia law on passing a stopped school bus has been clear for 40 years. Here - read it yourself:

"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."

Yes, drivers must stop a school bus which is, er, stopped.

Wait. Is something missing there?

Indeed. The preposition "at" was deleted in 1970 when the law was amended, the statute's history shows. And a man who zipped past a school bus, while it was picking up children with its lights flashing and stop sign extended, was found not guilty recently by a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge.

"He can only be guilty if he failed to stop any school bus," Judge Marcus D. Williams said at the end of the brief trial of John G. Mendez, 45, of Woodbridge. "And there's no evidence he did."

Williams added, "I hope that this is addressed so we don't have to keep dealing with this."

And the Virginia General Assembly will address it. Told by a reporter of Mendez's acquittal, Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said: "That's not good. That's a very serious charge. That needs to be fixed."

Still, the flawed law will stay on the books at least until January, when the Virginia legislature reconvenes, and most new laws won't take effect until July. Albo, chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, said that if there is enough support to push the bill through in emergency fashion, the word change could take effect as soon as late January.

Reckless driving is not just a traffic violation - it's a criminal misdemeanor punishable by jail time and stiff fines.

Mendez probably wasn't looking at any jail time. Still, he had received the ticket in the middle of a ridiculously bad morning - his tools were stolen and he was laid off his job before he passed the bus - and was thrilled by the judge's ruling, coming after argument from his attorney, Eric E. Clingan.

"Eric did his homework," Mendez said. "He did a lot of work and investigation into the statutes. . . . This is the greatest moment ever."


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