Do Traffic Police Have Authority to Ban Burgers for Drivers?

Traffic police obviously have immense authority since they can always find a reason to pull you over… but a hamburger?

People can be distracted while they drive for all sorts of reason. Children in the back seat are one example. Mobile smartphones are another. Looking at something interesting as you drive by is yet another. Obviously, if someone is driving dangerously, a traffic cop is within his duties to stop the person. It seems to me that a warning would usually be more than adequate in most cases, but that is another topic.

What I don’t understand is how a police officer can accuse someone of distracted driving without even testifying that he was driving dangerously.

But then we have this story from Georgia’s WBS-TV: “Man cited for ‘eating while driving’ in Cobb County.”

Madison Turner said he ordered a double quarter pounder with cheese from McDonald’s last week, and a police officer pulled him over, along Canton Road in Marietta.

“The officer explained to me that he observed me eating a burger for 2 miles,” Madison said. “He said specifically three times, you can’t just go down the road eating a hamburger.”

According to the ticket, the officer wrote him up under Georgia’s distracted driving law, and under the comments sections wrote “eating while driving.”

That law reads, in part: “A driver shall exercise due care in operating a motor vehicle on the highways of this state and shall not engage in any actions which shall distract such driver from the safe operation of such vehicle.”

“Maybe I was enjoying the burger too much I needed to tone it down. I was certainly willing to do so but I didn’t expect to be fined or punished,” Madison said.

eating while driving

“If this was the law, I’d have to hire more attorneys because everybody does it including me,” said William Head, a longtime traffic and DUI attorney, who is not representing Turner.

“I’ve only seen something like this charge when there’s an accident.  There was no accident here so the fact that this man was charged with eating and driving is a first for me,” Head said. Head added that law was very vague.

The reporter says that people she interviewed say the ticket will be dropped. Maybe. If not, we have another instance of a serious problem.

The police are hired to be law enforcers and security providers, not legislators. But this police officer has effectively created a new law. We know this because the drive-through industry has been thriving for many decades in the United States and it has always served drivers as well as passengers. As far as one can tell from the ticket, the driver was neither swerving nor exceeding the speed limit (the driver also claims that in the news video). So this lone police officer has taken it upon himself to criminalize millions of drivers in his own state and elsewhere on his own authority.

As the attorney mentioned, the only time eating in the car has been considered a distraction according to the law is when there is an accident and that seems to have contributed. It is a factor in assigning blame. But if the courts uphold this ticket, they will be creating a new law. We know the legislature never intended to outlaw drive-through eating because that has continued uninterrupted. The courts and cops will be creating a new pretext for ticketing and punishing drivers—a new law that has been created outside the legislative process.

Then, unless a higher court prevails, the legislature will have to pass yet another law to rein in the police and courts. No wonder we have too many laws!

more laws equal less justice

The entire point of the vaunted “rule of law” is to give people a predictable path for their lives. People cannot be harmed by arbitrary whims of the powerful but know in advance what behavior will be tolerated and what behavior will be penalized. The police officer has overthrown that blessing by punishing someone for a crime he made up on the spot.

Notice that, as a more general principle we see at work here, the more new laws are created the more likely the rule of law is to be undermined.

Of course, the rule of law is also undermined when one class of people are exempt from penalties that are imposed on others. How much distracting electronic equipment did the arresting officer have in his vehicle? In another state, a police officer actually killed someone while using his smart phone and driving at the same time, but District Attorney claimed his behavior was legal, despite the law saying otherwise.