Tom Jackman, "Dropped 'at' in Va. law yields acquittal in school bus case", WaPo 11/30/2010:
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."
A grammatical analysis offered by the defense persuaded the judge:
[Defense attorney Eric E.] Clingan then provided to [Judge Marcus D.] Williams a grammatical analysis by E. Shelley Reid, an associate professor of English at George Mason University. Reid noted that the phrase "when approaching from any direction" is a nonrestrictive modifier and can be removed from the sentence. "As a result," Reid wrote, "the grammatical core of the first half of the sentence would read, 'A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop any school bus. . . . ' This is a cohesive, grammatically correct sentence that conveys a clear if not very reasonable meaning."
But Allen Browne, who sent me a link to the story, offered an alternative construal:
It appears to me that the problem is a confusing heavy NP shift. [...] I think “A school bus” is supposed to be read as the direct object of “approaching”. Professor Reid thought that “School bus” was the object of “stop” because “when approaching from any direction” is an unrestrictive relative.
"Heavy noun phrase shift" refers to the fact that direct objects can be "shifted" so as to follow (rather than precede) other post-verbal material (in this case the prepositional phrase "from any direction") if the object is "heavy" enough. The wikipedia article uses this example:
1. (a) I gave the books which my uncle left to me as part of his inheritance to Bill
1. (b) I gave to Bill the books which my uncle left to me as part of his inheritance
The point is that "I gave to Bill the books" is at least odd if not ungrammatical, whereas a "heavier" direct object like "the books which my uncle left me as part of his inheritance" is fine in final position.
So Allen's analysis yields a tree with this general structure (click on the image for a larger version):
On this analysis, the only problem in the wording of the law (other than excessive structural complexity and consequent unclarity) is a couple of inappropriately-placed commas. Here's the sentence with the misleading commas removed:
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.
The prosecution, unfortunately, did not retain Allen as an expert witness, but rather fell back on a common-sensical argument about legislative intent:
[Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Katie] Pavluchuk, who was simply handling the regular Thursday morning misdemeanor appeals docket, did not come prepared with case law and professorial analysis, as Clingan did. But her boss, Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, was ready when asked about it this week.
"I respectfully disagree with the decision," Morrogh said. He cited a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1892 that said, "If a literal construction of the words of a statute be absurd, the act must be so construed as to avoid the absurdity."
He also said a full reading of the law makes its intention clear and pointed to a Virginia Supreme Court case that said that "the plain, obvious, and rational meaning of a statute is always to be preferred to any curious, narrow, or strained construction." The court also wrote, "We must assume the legislature did not intend to do a vain and useless thing."
And then the Fairfax prosecutor tossed in his own analysis of the Mendez case, through a Japanese proverb: "Only lawyers and painters can turn white to black."
As noted a few years ago. the validity of such arguments about intent is contested:
"Scalia on the meaning of meaning", 10/29/2005
"Is marriage similar or identical to itself?", 11/2/2005
"Legal meaning: the fine print", 11/2/2005
"A result that no sensible person could have intended", 12/8/2005
"Does marriage exist in Texas?", 11/19/2009
According to Jackman's WaPo story, the problem arose when the law in question was changed in 1970. His account, following that of the defense team, is that a crucial preposition was omitted. Unfortunately, the Post's description of the change seems to have been rather carelessly typeset:
There are no "bolded words in brackets", but if we interpret this to mean "italicized words in brackets", then we get this impossible-to-parse sequence as the original text:
A person shall be guilty of reckless driving who shall: (f) Fail to stop, at a school bus, whether publicly or privately owned, and whether transporting children to, from, or in connection with a public or private school is stopped on the any highway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children, when approaching the same from any direction and to remain stopped until all children are clear of the highway or school driveway and the bus is put in motion.
I could speculate as to how the reporter/editor/typesetter screwed up (for example, the which in "which is stopped" was presumably original), and try to reconstruct what the original text must have been, but I'd rather find the real historical version. Unfortunately a quick internet search didn't uncover it.
Whatever the history of the current wording, I found Allen's construal persuasive. On this account, the omission of "at" was not an error, but rather part of a re-parsing of the sentence. Anyhow, the state legislature can be apparently expected to amend the law during its next session, presumably so as to remove this problem without introducing any new ones.