Re: Washington County bus stop arm violations
After a recent plea agreement involving a Washington County officer, I received questions from several people regarding the handling of bus stop arm violations in Washington County.
The law regarding illegally passing a stopped school bus was changed in response to a tragic incident in Worth County, Iowa, in 2011. In that case, a 7-year-old girl was struck and killed by a driver who illegally passed a school bus. That driver pled guilty to vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to a 15-year prison term and will have to serve at least 10 ½ years before he is eligible for parole.
In response, the Iowa Legislature changed Iowa Code Section 321.372 relating to the unlawful passing of a stopped school bus. This change was signed by the governor and the new law took effect on Aug. 15, 2012. Prior to Aug. 15, 2012, the penalty for this violation was a fine of $200 and there was no possibility of jail time. After the law was changed, the penalty for a first offense was increased to a fine of at least $250 but no more than $625 and the possibility of up to 30 days in jail. A second or subsequent violation is treated as a serious misdemeanor and carries a fine of between $315 and $1,875 and the possibility of up to a year in jail.
The new version of the law still gives prosecutors, judges and magistrates discretion to seek or impose penalties that are based on several factors including the driver’s driving history and the potential threat the driver’s conduct posed to the children on the school bus. To be clear, my office wholeheartedly supports the range of potential consequences for illegally passing a school bus. This range allows prosecutors, judges and magistrates to evaluate all of the circumstances involved to arrive at a fair and just penalty based on the nature and severity of the driver’s actions.
In addition to the Legislature and the governor increasing the penalties for violating the law, the Iowa Department of Transportation (“DOT”) imposed administrative sanctions for illegally passing a stopped school bus. Separate from the increased range of fines and possible jail time, the DOT now automatically suspends a person’s driver’s license for 30 days for a first conviction, 90 days for a second conviction and 180 days for a third or subsequent conviction. There is also a $200 civil penalty imposed by the DOT for reinstating a driver’s license. It should be noted that the DOT imposed this administrative penalty through an emergency administrative rule which was not voted on by the legislators and was not signed off on by the governor. Prior to the amendment of this law, a driver did not face any suspension of his or her driving privileges by the DOT for illegally passing a stopped school bus.
These sanctions are imposed directly by the DOT and there is no discretion given to prosecutors, judges or magistrates. Instead, the DOT’s administrative action imposed a mandatory suspension on all drivers convicted of illegally passing a stopped school bus regardless of the circumstances involved in the offense. Prior to Aug. 15, 2012, our office rarely became involved in these cases, since most people simply paid their fine. Once this penalty was imposed by the DOT, our office has dealt with several bus stop arm violations involving drivers who had no previous traffic violations and whose conduct did not create an immediate threat to the safety of children.
In those situations, the Washington County Attorney’s office believes the DOT administrative penalty is too harsh and does not take into account the circumstances surrounding the offense. As a result, after looking at the facts and circumstances of the offense to ensure there is an adequate factual basis to support a charge of reckless driving and after contacting the officer, deputy or trooper who wrote the initial ticket, our office has entered into plea agreements with at least three Washington County residents in the past six months through which the driver agrees to plead guilty to reckless driving. After pleading guilty, the driver agrees to pay a fine of $400. A reckless driving charge does not automatically suspend a person’s driver’s license but, if a person has three or more moving violations or accidents in a 12-month period, that person’s driver’s license would be suspended by the DOT for 90 days. None of these individuals were part of law enforcement.
Our office believes that allowing drivers to plead to a charge of reckless driving when it is warranted by the facts of the offense as well as the nature and severity of the conduct at issue is a more effective, fair and just enforcement of Iowa’s motor vehicle laws. Instead of letting a DOT official, who is not elected and not accountable to the public, arbitrarily decide that a driver should lose his license for at least 30 days regardless of the circumstances surrounding the violation, we believe the better practice is to allow prosecutors, judges and magistrates to exercise the judgment that they use every day in making charging and sentencing decisions.
One-size-fits-all justice is not justice and is not fair.