The little House bill that could (be vetoed)

Published May 24, 2007

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack

Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track ...


As Chuck Berry's song tells us, Johnny B. Goode was from Louisiana.

It's a good thing, too. If Johnny tried to hang out by the tracks in Florida, under a bill just passed by our Legislature, he would automatically be guilty of trespassing.

"I didn't know I was lawbreakin'," our young Mr. Goode might protest as he was being hauled away by his gunny sack. "I didn't see a sign or anything."

But the deputies would just hand Johnny a copy of House Bill 9, which says you ought to know already that railroad tracks are private property -- no signs required.

See, the way our trespassing law works, you have to know that you're someplace you're not supposed to be.

A house or building, that's easy to tell. But here's what counts, when it comes to trespassing on somebody's land:

This brings us to the 2,788 miles of railroad track in Florida -- usually not fenced or posted with signs. In fact, it would take 58,000 signs to do the job, the state calculates.

So this year our Legislature passed a bill filed by lawmakers from Jacksonville -- the home city of CSX Transportation Inc.

The bill adds protection to property that is "readily recognizable to a reasonable person as being the property of a railroad or railway company."

It was controversial. Although the bill passed the House 113-2, it squeaked by the Senate 20-19, and even then a senator tried too late to change his vote.

Now Gov. Charlie Crist has to decide whether to veto it.

The main opposition comes from the Florida Justice Association, previously known as the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. The group says that the signs help law-abiding but unaware citizens.

(Florida ranks third nationally in deaths of railroad trespassers, a fact cited both by supporters and opponents.)

I talked to Jamie Holland, a board member of the lawyers' group and a national leader in railroad law. I asked: Shouldn't people know not to walk down railroad tracks?

It's not that simple, Holland replied. Remember that the railroad track is a staple of American culture. In films (Stand By Me), in music videos (Every Mile a Memory), in all sorts of ways, the image of walking down a railroad track is lasting, even romantic.

So it's easy for people to get the idea it's just another quasi-public route, Holland argued. Especially kids. So we need signs to remind everybody.

You know what? I'll buy that. Some people are gonna trespass anyway, but it can't hurt to remind the rest. Besides , it makes a heck of a lot more sense than some of the warnings our law requires.

So if I am the gov, I veto the thing.

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