Four years ago, the General Assembly increased the criminal fine for passing a stopped school bus and enacted new license revocation and registration hold provisions. During the previous year—2012—there had been more than 1,300 misdemeanor charges for passing a stopped school bus and three felony charges, two for unlawfully passing a stopped school bus and striking a person and one for doing so and causing death. Not much has changed. In 2016, there were 1,400 misdemeanor charges for passing a stopped school bus and three felony charges for doing so and striking a person. This year, the General Assembly took a different tack. S.L. 2017-188 (S 55) authorizes counties to adopt ordinances that enforce the provisions of G.S. 20-217 by means of automated school bus safety cameras and impose civil penalties for violations. Continue reading
Tag Archives: school bus
School started back this week across the state, which means that many school buses are traveling the roadways. Buses in my neighborhood hit the pavement early—one drove by this morning shortly after 6 a.m.—and often still are completing their routes when commuters begin to drive home from work. The advent of a new school year is a good time to review the laws that prohibit motorists from passing stopped school buses and to discuss amendments to those provisions enacted by the General Assembly last session.
What is a school bus? School buses are easy to spot. They typically are painted yellow. G.S. 20-4.01(27)d4. The words “School Bus” are printed in large type on their front and rear. Id.; G.S. 20-217(b). They are equipped with alternately flashing red lights on the front and rear and a mechanical stop signal. They can be public, private or parochial vehicles.
When must drivers stop? The driver of a vehicle that approaches a school bus from any direction on the same street, highway, or public vehicular area must stop and remain stopped when (1) the bus is displaying its mechanical stop signal or flashing red lights and (2) is stopped for the purpose of allowing passengers to board or leave the bus. G.S. 20-217(a). The driver of the other vehicle may not move, pass, or attempt to pass the school bus until after (1) the mechanical stop signal has been withdrawn, (2) the flashing red stoplights have been turned off, and (3) the bus has started to move. Id.
What about divided roadways? An exception to the rule stated above applies to drivers traveling in the opposite direction from a school bus on a street that has been divided into two roadways that are separated by an intervening space (including a center lane for left turns if the roadway consists of at least four or more lanes) or by a physical barrier. Such a driver does not have to stop upon meeting and passing a school bus that has stopped in the roadway across the dividing space or physical barrier.
For their part, school bus drivers generally may not stop to allow passengers to board or leave the bus upon such a divided roadway if the passengers would be required to cross the roadway to reach their destination or to board the bus. G.S. 20-217(d). Passengers may, however, board or leave the bus at points on a divided roadway that they must cross if pedestrian and vehicle traffic is controlled by adequate stop and go traffic signals.
What’s the penalty? Passing a stopped school bus in violation of G.S. 20-217(a) is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which may not be disposed of by entry of a prayer for judgment continued. G.S. 20-217(e). Court appearance is mandatory for such charges; they are not the sort that may be paid and resolved by mail. Five driver’s license points are assigned to such a conviction if the driver was operating a noncommercial motor vehicle, eight if the person was driving a commercial motor vehicle. G.S. 20-16. Four insurance points apply, translating to an 80 percent increase in insurance rates.
If a driver willfully violates G.S. 20-217(a) and strikes any person, he is guilty of a Class I felony. If a driver willfully violates G.S. 20-217(a) and strikes any person, resulting in the death of that person, she is guilty of a Class H felony.
How are violators caught? Sometimes witnesses record the license plate of a motor vehicle and describe its driver. See, e.g., State v. Williams, 90 N.C. App. 120 (1988) (witness described car and driver and provided license plate number). Sometimes violations are recorded by cameras mounted on the school bus’s stop arm. G.S. 20-217(h) provides that “any photograph or video recording by a camera or video recording system shall, if consistent with the North Carolina Rules of Evidence, be admissible as evidence in any proceeding alleging a violation of [G.S.20-217(a)].” And, in the worst cases, when a child boarding a school bus is struck by a driver, the driver may stop. See, e.g., State v. Weston, 273 N.C. 275, 282, 159 S.E.2d 883, 887 (1968).
New legislation. S.L. 2013-293 (H 428) amended the penalty provisions of G.S. 20-217 and enacted new license revocation and registration hold provisions, effective for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2013.
- Mandatory Fines. The amendments require that a person convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor for passing a stopped school bus pay a minimum fine of $500, a person convicted of a Class I felony pursuant to G.S. 20-217(g) pay a minimum fine of $1,250, and a person convicted of a Class H felony under this statute pay a minimum fine of $2,500. The act “encourages local boards of education to use the proceeds of any fines collected for violations of G.S. 20-217 to purchase automated camera and video recording systems to install on school buses to help detect and prosecutor violators.”
- License Revocation. New G.S. 20-217(g1) requires that DMV revoke for one year the driver’s license of a person convicted of a second misdemeanor violation under G.S. 20-217 within a three-year period. DMV must revoke for two years the driver’s license of a person convicted of a Class I felony under G.S. 20-217 and must revoke for three years the driver’s license of a person convicted of a Class H felony under G.S. 20-217. DMV must permanently revoke the driver’s license of any person convicted of a second felony under G.S. 20-217 and the driver’s license of any person convicted of a third misdemeanor for passing a stopped school bus. DMV may restore a license permanently revoked under G.S. 20-217 after two years (in the case of revocation for a third misdemeanor) or three years (in the case of revocation for a second felony).
- Commercial License Disqualification. New G.S. 20-17.4(o) provides that any person whose driver’s license is revoked under G.S. 20-217 is disqualified from driving a commercial motor vehicle for the period of the revocation.
- Limited Driving Privilege. A person whose license is revoked for a first felony conviction under G.S. 20-217 may apply to the sentencing court for a limited driving privilege after six months of revocation.
- Registration Hold. New G.S. 20-217(g2) and G.S. 20-54(11) prevent a person who fails to pay a fine or costs imposed pursuant to G.S. 20-217 from registering or renewing the registration for any motor vehicle he owns.
Public Safety. There were more than 1,300 misdemeanor charges for passing a stopped school bus in 2012. There were 3 felony charges statewide, two for striking a person and one for causing death. One doesn’t have to look far for a compelling reason to comply with G.S. 20-217. North Carolina’s school children are worth the wait.
“Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.” So read a sign that an Ohio judge ordered a woman to wear after being convicted for the acts caught on video here. Apparently it was not an isolated incident. A parent whose daughter rode the bus said the defendant “did this almost every day last year.” (That sort of thing could result in a more serious punishment in North Carolina. See G.S. 20-217, one of the very few crimes for which the General Assembly has explicitly said a defendant may not receive a prayer for judgment continued.)
People occasionally ask me about the propriety of nontraditional sentences like the one described above—sometimes called shaming sanctions or “Hester Prynne” conditions, in reference to the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter. When I get those questions, it’s often a judge trying to come up with a creative way to get through to a younger, repeat offender—the kind of defendant the judge senses would accept a short jail sentence with a shrug or, worse, a smile.
Some of the conditions I have read about include:
- A DWI offender ordered to place an identifying bumper sticker or special license plate on his or her car, or to wear a special bracelet;
- Men convicted of soliciting prostitutes required to have their names and faces displayed on a local access television program popularly known as “John TV”;
- A shoplifter required to wear a court-provided t-shirt reading “My record plus two six-packs equals four years.”
There are lots of other examples.
As a matter of statute, North Carolina judges may order any condition of probation determined by the court to be reasonably related to the defendant’s rehabilitation. G.S. 15A-1343(b1)(10). The condition should also have a reasonable relation to the defendant’s crime, but the appellate courts are pretty deferential to trial judges on that point. See State v. Cooper, 304 N.C. 180 (upholding an ad hoc probation condition forbidding a defendant, convicted of possessing stolen credit cards, from driving between midnight and 5:30 a.m.).
No North Carolina appellate case explores the question of whether such a condition is permissible for an adult probationer. The closest case we have factually is In re M.E.B., in which the court of appeals struck a condition of a juvenile probation requiring a child to wear to 12 x 12 sign saying “I AM A JUVENILE CRIMINAL” any time she went out in public. 153 N.C. App. 278 (2002). But the court’s rationale in M.E.B. was very much focused on the particularities of the Juvenile Code (the need for confidentiality and promotion of the child’s best interests), and probably should not be read to extend to adult probation.
In a leading federal case, the Ninth Circuit upheld a condition of supervised release requiring a defendant convicted of mail theft to spend a day outside the post office wearing a sign that said “I stole mail. This is my punishment.” United States v. Gementera, 379 F.3d 596 (9th Cir. 2004). The court concluded that the punishment was reasonably related to the defendant’s crime and had a legitimate rehabilitative and deterrent effect. The court further held that the condition did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. To the contrary, shaming sanctions of far greater severity were common when the Bill of Rights was adopted and still fit within our evolving standards of decency. Judge Hawkins dissented, arguing that humiliation is not a proper goal of the Sentencing Reform Act, and that in any event, shaming sanctions “have no place in the majesty of an Article III courtroom.” Gementera, 379 F.3d at 610–11 (Hawkins, J., dissenting).
There are some good arguments in favor of shaming sanctions. A well-crafted condition might punish an offender, protect the public from future harm, and deter future crime by reinforcing public norms against criminality—sometimes precisely because the condition draws more attention than a run of the mill sentence of imprisonment. Shaming conditions have also been defended on economic grounds as an inexpensive alternative to incarceration. See Dan M. Kahan & Eric A. Posner, Shaming White-Collar Criminals: A Proposal for Reform of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, 42 J.L. & Econ 365, 371 (1999). And ultimately, many would say that shaming sanctions are not really any more stigmatic or embarrassing than other criminal punishments.
There are also strong arguments against shaming sanctions. First, they have a tendency to be disproportionate to the crime itself, in ways that often come across as undignified or dehumanizing. Second, they have been characterized as coerced speech in violation of defendants’ First Amendment rights. See United States v. Trainer, 265 F. Supp. 2d 589 (D. Md. 2003) (rejecting such a challenge). Third, they can put the defendant at risk by inviting retaliation from members of the public at large. And finally there is a question of effectiveness—I’m not aware of a study resolving the question of whether these types of sanctions actually work. See Note, Shame, Stigma, and Crime: Evaluating the Efficacy of Shaming Sanctions in Criminal Law, 116 Harv. L. Rev. 2186 (2003).
I’m curious what our readers think about sanctions such as these. Have you seen other examples in your work? And what do you think of the “Only an idiot” sign mentioned at the beginning of this post? Would it have been just as effective—and perhaps less susceptible to the argument that it was undignified—if it had read simply “I drove on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus”?