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So, this case came in the other day: Two lane road. Four in the PM. Guy driving home from work gets behind some other guy also driving home from work and they both come up on a stopped school bus (I mean, it LOOKED like a school bus, big, yellow, lights, kids, the whole bit, but more on that later). Before you could say “hit the brakes dude!” the guy in front whips by the bus on the left side and my guy, not to be outdone, goes for the same maneuver. Only problem is, by the time he gets to do that NASCAR-inspired slingshot pass, the stop sign on the left side of the bus is fully extended, the arm in front is all the way out, and the whole deal is lit up with more red lights than Disney World on a fine summer night. Worse still, the other dude’s long-gone, my guy is tail-end Charlie, and there’s a local cop right there (as BAD luck would have it) to see the whole deal unfold. Boom! On with the blue lights, out with the license. You know the rest of the drill. Big fat ticket and he’s in my office.

Just don’t pass a stopped school bus.  Period.

Well, before we get into the nit and grit of this case, let me lay on you a little kind-spirited admonition: DO NOT EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER PASS A STOPPED SCHOOL BUS!! Period. Full stop. End of story. And let me be clear: It’s not so much a matter of what happens to your insurance (that you could get 4 insurance points), or your driving record (that you could get 5 license points), or that you will inevitably wind up in front of a pissed-off judge and standing next to some self-righteous district attorney with political aspirations. NOPE. It’s more like this:  IT’S STUPID AND DANGEROUS. Every year here in Raleigh we hear some horrible tragedy about a perfectly nice average sort of guy (or gal) driving on his/her merry way when out of nowhere he winds up behind a stopped school bus and tries to “beat the light” or go around because he sees no kids. Hey buddy, don’t do it. Whatever the hell you are doing can wait. There’s no reason in this green world for you to be in such a hurry that you can justify the risk of hitting a kid getting off (or on) the bus. I don’t usually get up on the soapbox, but this is one of the occasions. Just don’t do it. Period. Dig? Ok? Now then, back to the case.

This guy seemed screwed, right? I mean, he passed the bus, right? The cop saw the whole bit, right? A quick check of the statute shows a PJC ( prayer for judgment continued) was no option (the legislature does’t want ANY kind of special relief for folks who do this stuff). See NCGS 20-217.

So whaddaya do?

Well, I’ll tell you. In this particular case the cop was at somewhat of a disadvantage. As it happens he was never in a position to see the BACK of the school bus and only saw what he saw from the front left side of the school bus.

Why does this matter?

Well, in fact it matters a lot. As it happens, if you look closely at the statutory definition of “school bus” which is found in NCGS 20-4.01(d4) you will find that the definition of “school bus” requires that there be the words “school bus” PLAINLY VISIBLE on both the front AND REAR of the vehicle. When I questioned him in court about this, he admitted to me that he had no idea whether the bus was appropriately designated as a “school bus” on its posterior side.
Bottom line: cop could’t testify that the bus met the statutory definition of “school bus”, ergo, passing it (as obviously my client did), was not punishable under NCGS 20-217. Oh frabjous day! Not guilty!

Take a look at the statutes (NCGS 20-217 and NCGS 20-4.01) and you’ll see there are other such requirements. Each of these requirements, it should be argued, it is incumbent on the State (DA) to prove in order to obtain a conviction under the statute. Where  the State falls short, the State has failed to meet its entire burden of proof. And while it may be quite apparent that the accused passed some kind of vehicle, if it is not a school bus, then this law doesn’t apply.Hey, reminder: You get behind a school bus you better be damn careful of those kids, see? But whatever happens, you find yourself in court, it’s now a matter of law. The State had better be prepared to prove each and every part of the statute if you are to be convicted.

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