Whether you have kids of school age or not, you no doubt have noticed that school is back in session for most districts in Pennsylvania. With the advent of school comes the extra measure of alertness and awareness required of all drivers. Still, it is all too common to see cars being driven through flashing school zones at speeds at or above the posted speed limit, as if the flashing lights just did not apply to those drivers, or as if compliance were optional. Let’s first talk about how seriously PA law treats motorists who violate the traffic laws where children and school buses are involved.
We all know about points. Points are a penalty assessed against a driver for being convicted of certain moving violations. Some moving violations carry no points, but most of them do carry points. They generally range from 2 points to 5 points, with 3 points being the most common assessment. Some violations also carry mandatory suspensions of the operator’s driver’s license, such as “Failure to Comply with a Crossing Gate or Barrier (sect. 3341(b)). The statute which lists the number of points that are assigned to different motor vehicle code violations is 75 Pa.C.S. section 1535(a). It is in the Motor Vehicle Code, not the Crimes Code, because these are crimes which involve the use of motor vehicles.
Lawyers will often ask local police officers to “plea down” a motor vehicle code point offense to a no point offense, the most common of which is section 3111(a)—more about that later. Each case is unique, and in some instances the officer has already charged a motorist with a far less severe offense than the one actually committed by the motorist. In those instances, police officers are more reluctant to plea.
School related motor vehicle code violations are the most severely punished. For example, section 3345(a) is the violation of “Failure to stop for school bus with flashing red lights on,” the penalty for which is FIVE points and a mandatory 60 day suspension of your operator’s privilege. What if you “merely” exceed the special speed limit in a school zone, usually 15 mph? The penalty is still quite stiff. Under section 3365(b), exceeding such a speed limit, by any amount, warrants the imposition of 3 points on your license…..and a mandatory 60 day driver’s license suspension for a second such offense.
These are statutory crimes, which means the penalty is fixed. It is not negotiable. If you are convicted of the crime, you must pay the penalty specified for that crime. There is no discretion for the judge if the offense specifies the precise penalty. So what lawyers try to do for their clients is plea the crime to a lesser crime, one for which there is not such a harsh sentence. Still, the harshness of this sentence shows how seriously our legislature takes the crime of disregarding a school bus’s flashing red lights or exceeding the special speed limit in a school zone. The penalty applies even where no harm comes to anyone. If fatal harm came to a child, or adult, as a result of violating section 3345(a), or any other section of the Code, then there could be a much more serious crimes charged, such as HBV, Homicide by Vehicle, section 3732(a). This is Felony of the Third Degree, where the Code violation was the cause of death.
It is important to remember that driving is a privilege, not a right. We have certain fundamental, constitutional rights, such as the right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to peaceably assemble to protest, interstate travel, marriage, etc. However, there is no constitutional right to operate a motor vehicle. No court has held that driving is part of the first amendment freedoms. It is a privilege given to us by the DMV of a state. This is the same DMV which is statutorily empowered to take it away. Extra vigilance is warranted for all drivers this time of year.
Lastly, if you are charged with a motor vehicle code violation, hopefully not a serious one as discussed in this article, we generally advise you to plead NOT guilty, if you wish to avoid points. If you plead guilty, there is nothing to argue or contest. It is very difficult to later change such a plea to not guilty. If you plead not guilty, it preserves the possibility of a lawyer being able to help you defend the charge or plead to a lesser charge. We help the victims of negligent motorists, not the drivers who hurt them, but now and again people with spotless driving records make relatively minor mistakes.
Call our accident lawyers and we will tell you if we can help. In the meantime, plead not guilty. Most importantly, please be extra vigilant for children this time of year, whether you are driving in a school zone or not. We all know younger children are not particularly mindful of cars, and tragedy can sometimes be avoided just be driving a little under the speed limit, instead of a little over it. When driving through an area with kids playing, use the same good judgment you would hope other drivers would exercise if they were driving through your neighborhood when kids were out playing.