Stealing A Stop Sign Will Get You Fifteen (6/17/97)

No case has given rise to the mixture of emotions more than the one that came to an end in Florida last week. You may have heard about it. Two men and one woman, all in their early twenties, pulled a high school level prank by stealing a variety of street and traffic signs one night. If the story ended there, you would expect for them to be caught and punished. Perhaps a monetary fine plus restitution to the city for the cost of replacing the signs would be appropriate.

But this story took a tragic twist due to the nature of one of the stolen signs. A "stop" sign to be specific. We take them for granted, don't we? Many of us even perform a "rolling stop" if we feel comfortable that our conduct will not be detected by a local law enforcement officer.

In Florida, however, hours after the theft, an unsuspecting vehicle drives through the intersection without stopping. After all, there was no traffic control device to advise the driver to, simply, stop. The results were tragic. The vehicle collides with an oncoming car and three individuals, all eighteen years of age, are left dead.

A stolen stop sign. Three deaths. A tragedy.

What should be done?

The arguments on both sides are compelling. The families of those killed are justified in their anger. The unauthorized removal of a stop sign creates a risk of serious bodily injury or death and, it can be argued, the young men were actually aware of this risk yet consciously disregarded it. In Texas, this could be classified as manslaughter carrying with it up to twenty years in prison.

On the other hand, the young men deserved to be heard. "It was a stupid, ridiculous prank," they would argue. "We might be dumb, but we are not murderers. After all, we did not intend the death of the individuals. It was an innocent prank that resulted in tragedy to due a freak set of circumstances."

If the men are correct in that they should have been aware of the risk but actually were not, they would be guilty only of criminally negligent homicide, a state jail felony. That offense carries with it a maximum of two years in jail, and, at the time it was committed, the defendants would have received automatic probation if they had no prior felony convictions.

There is a fine line between manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in Texas. It depends if the defendants actually knew or simply should have known of the risk they created. With that in mind, it would be interesting to learn how the case would have been handled in a Texas court.

But what was the result in Florida? Fifteen years in prison each for both the two men and the woman.

Fifteen long years. (The defendants were allowed to be released on bond pending the appeal).

Nevertheless, it is difficult to make a case that the sentence was too severe. I never thought too much about traffic signs before the incident last week. Upon reflection, however, I cannot think of anything more foolish than stealing a stop sign. During the process of its removal, it is inevitable that the perpetrators would have thought about the consequences of their actions. They might not have intended to kill anyone, but certainly they were aware of the risk they had created.

We do not run stop signs at full speed. Why not? Yes, it is illegal, but the greatest deterrent to that type of conduct is the very real possibility of death. If we were to do so, we would intentionally be creating a death trap.

In the end, that is exactly what the young men created. And they paid the price.

The judge said that there were no winners in the case. I couldn't agree more.

Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.

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