About a month ago, my wife and I were on our way to dinner at a new restaurant when a cop pulled us over. I got a ticket. Then we continued to dinner, which sucked.
When I got home that night, I did some research on the law I had allegedly broken. It’s listed in the online Illinois code as 625 ILCS 5/11‑907(c), and the officer described it on the ticket as “Failed to Yield to Stationary Emerg. Vehicle (Scott’s Law).” That’s Red Flag #1 right there. As a general rule, any law named after a victim is going to be a bad law.
Lt. Scott Gillen was a Chicago firefighter who was tragically killed when a vehicle hit him while he was responding to another incident. In 2001, a bunch of Illinois politicians lead by Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood got together to pass “Scott’s Law” to punish people who drive recklessly near emergency workers. Wood had this to say about it:
Scott’s Law’ is a vital piece of legislation created with the sole purpose of protecting emergency workers throughout Illinois. As it has been tragically proven, careless driving around emergency scenes can result in the injury or death to the firefighters, police officers, or other emergency personnel who risk their lives to save ours. This law will help protect those who protect us.
There was another purpose to Scott’s law, of course, and that’s to make a bunch of politicians look good by getting tough on a problem.
It’s not as if the State of Illinois made it all the way to 2001 without anyone realizing that it was a bad thing to run people over, and it’s not as if the guy who killed Scott Gillen got away with it. Scott’s killer is still serving out his 13-year sentence.
This law is supposed to punish drivers for reckless behavior even if there is no accident, thus reducing reckless behavior and therefore reducing tragic deaths. But Scott’s law doesn’t make it illegal to endanger police officers, fire fighters, and other first responders, because driving recklessly and endangering other people was already illegal. Scott’s law just makes it extra special illegal. It’s legislative theater.
I remember many years ago when the state legislature made it a crime to steal milk crates. Of course, stealing anything was already a crime, but they passed a special law to cover milk crates. This enabled politicians to go back to the small business owners who had complained and say “See! I did something about that!”
Whenever someone names a law after a victim, as in Scott’s law, I take that as a sign the the same political dynamic is at work. Some politician want to be able to tell people “See! I did something about that!”
This law isn’t just legislative theater, however. It’s badly written legislative theater.
Remember, the law was passed because a reckless drunk driver killed an emergency worker in a car accident. As the law is written, however, a driver is punished even if no one is killed, and even if no one is injured. The law doesn’t even require that there’s an accident. All you have to do is drive too close to an emergency vehicle on the side of the road.
Heck, the law doesn’t even require that a real emergency vehicle is involved: It applies to construction vehicles too, which is strange when you think about it. Emergency first responders have to go where the emergency is, which often means someplace unsafe, so it’s reasonable to have special driving rules around them. Likewise, police officers who pull over an offender have to stop behind him, so it’s reasonable to ask other drivers to give them room. That’s why a law to protect them is good idea.
Construction vehicles are in a completely different situation. Construction is a planned activity. It happens when and where the construction supervisors want it to happen. There’s nothing emergency about it. If they want traffic away from the workers, they can put up barricades. If they want you to slow down, they can set a low speed limit. If they park a construction vehicle too close to traffic, it endangers you and me as much as it endangers them.
According to a 2001 press release on State Representative Rosemary Mulligan’s web site:
“Scott’s Law” also would cover Illinois highway maintenance personnel who risk their lives on a daily basis.
I’m not saying road maintenance is a perfectly safe job or that reckless drivers don’t kill highway workers, but if the workers “risk their lives on a daily basis,” that’s a frank admission that road work in Illinois is poorly planned by people who are negligent about worker safety.
By the way, that’s what the cop accused me of: Passing a construction vehicle without changing lanes. But the law is so broad that it makes me look like I’d endangered an emergency worker, when all I did was pass a truck. That’s Red Flag #2.
Reading through the language of the statute, I was startled to find this scary clause:
A person who violates subsection (c) of this Section commits a business offense punishable by a fine of not less than $100 or more than $10,000.
Ten Thousand Dollars? Oh my God! I presume judges impose fines that are reasonably in proportion to the offense, but nothing in the statute requires them to do so. That’s red flag #3.
The law also includes clauses for suspending driving privileges. As I read it, I didn’t do anything that would trigger those sections, but I could be wrong. That’s red flag #4.
You probably think I’m whining here. After all, this is just a traffic violation. (Although, did I mention the $10,000 fine?) However, the problems with this law illustrate some troubling issues with other criminal laws.
First, there’s the over-use of suspension of driving rights. Maine just passed a law which imposes a 3-year suspension for too many tickets over a 5-year period, and some people are losing their right to drive for things they did before the law was even passed. (Like the law I’m complaining about, Maine’s law is named after a victim.)
Defenders of such rules are fond of repeating that “driving is a privilege not a right,” but that’s a meaningless phrase outside a courtroom. If you drive a car, it probably affected your choice of where to live and where to work. You probably also chose schools and doctors because they were within reasonable driving distance. All that planning will be disrupted if you lose your license. Whatever else driving is, it’s a practical necessity for many people, and they organize their lives around it. Legislators should be more careful about suspending it.
Second, there are the surprising definitions used by the law. “Failure to yield to an emergency vehicle” sounds as if I almost hit a police car or didn’t make room for an ambulance, when all I did was drive too close to a parked construction truck. In a traffic law, this is merely annoying, but other laws have similarly unexpected definitions.
The drug laws are probably the worst. In some states you can be accused of drug possession just for being in the same room with some drugs, even if you’re just a guest at a party. Similarly, something as simple as passing a joint around a room can meet the legal definition of distributing drugs. Doctors can even be accused of distributing drugs if the police don’t like the way they prescribe painkillers.
Prostitution laws aren’t any better. In California, you can be arrested if an undercover cop offers to pay you for sex and you smile, because prostitution is defined as accepting an offer of sex for money, even if you don’t do anything. You can be arrested for giving a prostitute’s number to a friend, because pandering is defined as “encouraging” prostitution. And you can be arrested for providing day care services to a prostitute’s children because pimping is defined as receiving money that was earned in prostitution.
Third, there’s the weird overlap with other laws, making some things extra-special illegal. It’s illegal to sell drugs, and it’s even more illegal to sell them within 1500 (or whatever) feet of a school, or to have marijuana in the same house with a firearm. This sort of thing is almost always political grandstanding rather than considered lawmaking.
Given all that upsets me about this law, I wasn’t real sure what was likely to happen to me when I had my court date. So I did something I’ve never done before: I hired a defense attorney.
I’ll tell you what happened next in another post.
Update: Here’s the end of the story.