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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Statutory Construction is Going to the Dogs

My bike ride to work today reminded me of a sneaky little game I play with my students when statutory construction comes up. A medium-sized dog was in the front passenger seat of a Chevrolet SUV and the dog was wearing a seat belt. My first thought was that this was hilarious; my second thought was that it actually is just safer. Then, I wondered if seat belt laws apply to dogs.

California's Vehicle Code, Section 27315(d)(1) says that "[a] person shall not operate a motor vehicle on a highway unless that person and all passengers 16 years of age or over are properly restrained by a safety belt." Without knowing the age of the dog (California's Vehicle Code alternately refers to "minors under the age of 16" and "children"), it is possible that "passenger," as broader classification than "person," could include a dog. That makes linguistic sense -- the word "passenger," from the Middle English passager, etymologically refers to a traveler or taking a path, not necessarily a human traveler  -- and the distinction is supported in subclause (e), which states that "[a] person 16 years of age or over shall not be a passenger in a motor vehicle on a highway unless that person is properly restrained by a safety belt." This section distinguishes between the status of being a "person" and the status of being a "passenger." It also means that when a dog is a passenger in a motor vehicle on a highway without a seat belt, only the person operating the vehicle is violating the law. Since subsection (e) refers to persons as passengers, a human passenger in a car on a highway without a seat belt opens up the driver and the passenger to a vehicle code violation.

Of course, this is not the only interpretation of these clauses. But, one thing is clear: much of this would be resolved if the California Vehicle Code defined the word "passenger," but it does not.

So, buckle up your dogs. Or don't. Download your state or local vehicle laws to be sure. Either way, it's a funny way to teach the perils of poor drafting and the gaps left by the plain language of statutes.

Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on March 30, 2011 at 12:53 PM in Odd World, Teaching Law | Permalink


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While this doesn't undermine your point about proper drafting, it bears mentioning that the driver of a car containing an unseatbelted dog could almost certainly get off on some sort of vagueness/leniency argument.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 31, 2011 1:29:08 PM

I missed that one. Thanks, Professor Hendricks!

Posted by: Ari Ezra Waldman | Mar 30, 2011 3:01:19 PM

While that's certainly one reading (and you certainly acknowledge that there may be more than one interpretation), I think the more precise reading of that section is as follows. (There may be other sections that bear on the interpretation, but I'll ignore those.) To be precise, the statute does not distinguish between "person" and "passenger" as two non-overlapping categories. Instead, the statute distinguishes between "all passengers" and "that person," referring unambiguously to "a person [operating] a motor vehicle on the highway." So the two definitional categories we have are not "person" and "all passengers"; instead, the two definitional categories are "person operating a motor vehicle on the highway" and "all passengers." I only point this out to suggest that, logically, the statute doesn't necessitate that "all passengers" is broader than "person," but instead only that "all passengers" is broader than "that person [operating a motor vehicle on the highway]." This leaves it more open as to whether "passengers" refers to "all persons" or a broader category.

Does that mean I think the statute is well-drafted? No. But I thought I'd point this out.

Posted by: Law Clerk | Mar 30, 2011 2:56:57 PM

A dog is safer in a harness to which the seat belt attaches. So there's a question as to what counts as "properly restrained."

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Mar 30, 2011 2:56:04 PM

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