Typo in a law..

Inspired by a comment in another thread about how some people think the law
is “robotic.”

What will/should happen in the following situation:

The state legislature of Dopervania wants to raise the speed limits on it’s interstates from 65 to 70 miles per hour. On the last day of the session it passes a bill that states (so everyone thinks) “A driver shall not operate a motor vehicle on the interstate highways of this state in excess of 70 miles per hour. A person violating this section is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be fined $100 and assessed 3 points on his driver’s license.”

The governor signs the bill and all is well, but oh noes! The text of the bill left out the “not”! It’s says that a "A driver shall operate a motor vehicle on the interstate . . . "

The next morning a police officer sees me travelling on the interstate at 85 mph. He sees someone else travelling 60 mph. What should/will/would happen?

How about for other drivers travelling at 20mph, 40mph, and 190mph?

Did this actually happen? If so…cool!

If hypothetical, then, most likely, the legislature will fix it by another vote. Meanwhile, what happens in court is completely up to the judge. A friendly judge might laugh and say, “This is your lucky day; case dismissed.” A hard-ass judge might say “The legislative intent is obvious; pay the fine, and if you feel like appealing, go right ahead.” Who can know?

I do remember the intriguing case when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley meant to veto a measure, but accidentally signed it. Story here. A judge ruled that the approval of the law, while obviously not in accordance with the mayor’s intent, was legal. Be more careful next time.

(The story says that an appeal was expected, but I wasn’t able to find any references to it.)

Mis-written laws can be fixed by the legislature and typically there is a lag time before a new law goes into effect, so I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

And there are a lot of people who check to make sure the law is written correctly, so I doubt this actually happens very often…

Odds are that the state’s basic speed law was unchanged, so the missing “not” would not give everyone free reign to drive like idiots.

That’s called a “ministerial” error, and won’t negate the effect of the law. It is so obviously not what the law required that for a “reasonable person” to think otherwise would be absurd. You’d get a ticket.

Most states use Mason’s Manual for their rules of order and I don’t have a copy handy. There was no Motion to Amend so either the law was never passed (although that may have to be a very technical legal argument if the legislature does not acknowledge the error) or the original version was passed. Either way, the new law will not be that you must exceed the limit.

Aren’t there stories of exactly this sort that pop up in the news from time to time? (Sorry, I don’t have a specific one in mind just now.) But one reads of these kinds of things now and then.

Haven’t Americans fought and squabbled ad infinitum over the punctuation in the Second Amendment? e.g.: “No, gun, control”, L. A. Times, March 22, 2007. (Google punctuation in the Second Amendment to find umpty-ump more articles on the topic.)

The first line of defense would probably be the prosecutor. In all likelihood, the prosecutor’s office would use their discretion not to pursue any charges brought under an absurd law. (Unless of course, you were sleeping with the prosecutor’s wife or some such.) The prosecutor (or whoever appoints the prosecutor in your jurisdiction) probably wants to get re-elected.

Whenever a major piece of tax legislation (which differs from criminal law because it can be retroactive) is passed, there are always some real whoppers that get pointed out after the bill is signed into law. Generally, the IRS will accept the word of the appropriate committee chairman that a technical corrections bill will be passed and hold off enforcing the clearly wrong laws. At least until our currently dysfunctional Congress, these things have had a way of working themselves out.

You won’t find a better answer than this:


Article is available as a pdf.

How about comma problems in the second amendment to the US Constitution? That’s been argued about for centuries.

I’ve heard of this in drugs cases, where the scientific name of the chemical compound is used in the legislation.

NY Times article from 1988. Typo in spelling of scientific name for drug ecstasy gets defendant a not guilty judgment.
Drug Defendant Not Guilty By Reason of a Misspelling

Wasn’t there an anti-gay marriage bill passed a few years ago whose wording, if taken literally, outlawed heterosexual marriage as well?

What if its a clear safety issue, like the ops, for example? Or better yet an airplane regulation that mixed up, up and down?

I think the key difference is this was a law that was read and written in its correct form and then miswritten midway through. As I argued, under parliamentary law the bill was not appropiately changed and the vote is invalid. A lot of the cases in this threads were laws that started out as miswritten and that is a wholly different issue.

Nothing, because a punitive measure with immediate effect would run afoul of the Due Process Clause.

I’ve found a number of typos in Panamanian laws that set up some of the national protected areas. One wildlife reserve here has one of its boundary points on Baffin Island in the Arctic, and another has one off the coast of West Africa due to errors in the latitude or longitude specified.

As far as I know, no one has ever gotten around to correcting them. Theoretically you could shoot a duck in North Dakota and be in violation of Panamanian law. (Of course, they wouldn’t actually have any jurisdiction.)

In Australia (and presumably the UK) it’s based on what is called the ‘golden rule’ - Wiki has a good run down on it that jives with my Legal Institutions notes. A judge can read a statute in such a way as to avoid an absurd result (like in this case of a missing word.)


In the alternative, there is the ‘mischief rule’, where the courts look at what mischief the law sets out to address, and reads the law accordingly. In this case, the word “not” was clearly left out, and the mischief was speeding, so the judge would use the law as intended by the legislature.


(I ran across Heydon’s Case just this week in a recent judgement, so there you go.)

ETA: There are accepted rules for judges to use in cases where statutory interpretation is required, and these are two of them.

The exact procedure will depend on location.

In Spain, any laws and law-level regulations must be published in the relevant Government’s Bulletin: there have been instances where a law and a document with corrections/adenda went in the same issue of the Bulletin. In the case of adenda it’s relatively common; for example, our Income Tax laws do not include tables and %s to be applied: they say which concepts will be taxable and which won’t, but the exact numbers must go in an addendum that gets published yearly. When the law changes, the new version often gets published in the same Bulletin as its first year’s set of tables.

In the case in the OP, the cop will prepare denuncias (“tickets”) for both and consult with his superiors (both within his corps and in the judiciary) whether any or both should be filed. It’s not the cop who fines you, it’s a judge: the cop only reports that he saw you doing something you shouldn’t have, the report is called a denuncia.

There’s always the case of the “million dollar comma,” which indicates that the letter (and punctuation) of the law is what matters.

In the case above, and assuming no one corrected the mistake before it went into effect, the judge would have been in his rights to dismiss the case against anyone going 85 (unless there was a different law still in effect that might apply). For those traveling below 75, the cops wouldn’t bother arresting anyone. The law would also be amended as soon as the mistake was pointed out.

In Sweden speed limits and other rules of the road, which as it happens are not laws but ordinances, must be posted somehow (don’t ask me about details) and if this is not done properly they are void. There are cases when speeders or people who have parked illegally have got off scot-free by pointing this out.