Two Wrongs Make a Conviction

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

“Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do.”

There is a lot of ranting against speed limits, stop signs, and so forth on the internet. I agree with much of it, until it goes off into wildly wrong legal assertions.

Too many people fall for the wishful thinking fallacy: some traffic regulation must be illegal because it is obviously wrong.

So what if the decision to post a sign was political? There is no constitutional rule against “political” laws. On the contrary, there is a general rule against judges inquiring into the political motives behind a law. The so-called “police power” allows state legislatures, councils of home rule cities, and so forth to make up rules without offering any explanation.

To persuade a judge that a traffic rule is illegal, you have to cite a superior legal authority. For example, state law may require cities to set arterial speed limits based on engineering studies. But not all speed limits need to be justified. Some can be based on the misinformed opinions of whatever idiots got the most votes, and still be legal.

Find a law that says politicians have to follow advice, and then you can complain they didn’t.

Who cares about standards anyway?

Or maybe you can’t complain.

A long time ago, in a state far away, a man ran a red light. He said the light violated the traffic control device manual. State law says compliance is mandatory. He was convicted anyway.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld his conviction. The judges agreed that the light might be illegal. They also said that was none of his business. Only the State Highway Commission is allowed to enforce State Highway Commission rules. Drivers should quit complaining and obey the law.

Where I live you can argue that the stop light you ran violates state standards. Two wrongs — yours and the city’s — make a right. In Arkansas you can’t. Two wrongs make a conviction.

States that are not California

Do you know if you’re in California? The question sounds silly, but drivers try to use the California speed trap law in states that are not California. Unfortunately, one recently appealed his conviction.

I hate that sort of thoughtless appeal. It’s a fastball down the middle and the prosecutor is at bat. The driver did worse than lose. He set a precedent that New Mexico police need not prove the speed limit they are enforcing is valid. If you have proof that the speed limit is illegal, the prosecutor will point to this decision and ask the judge to ignore you.

Know your audience

If you want to argue that the government shouldn’t do something, say post a stop sign, that’s a policy argument. You can argue “common sense”, engineering standards, and so forth.

If you want to argue that the government can’t do something that’s a legal argument. You had better know what the law really says, not what you wish it said.

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