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Finding Jessica's Law

by Mary S. Searles on 2019-10-23T10:17:00-04:00 in Negligence, Statutes | 0 Comments

We were asked some years ago to find the law in New Hampshire that requires motorists to remove snow and ice from their vehicles. That law is RSA 265:79-b: Negligent Driving, sometimes called "Jessica's Law." (Read our research guide on Jessica's Law here.) As we describe below, this proved to be much more difficult than we expected and provides several lessons about legal research.

Jessica’s Law was passed by the New Hampshire legislature in 2001 (and later amended in 2005) in response to the death of Jessica Smith, a 20 year old woman who was killed when ice flew off the top of a truck and hit a second truck, resulting in a head-on collision with Jessica's car.

Using Popular Names

The phrase "Jessica's Law" is the "popular name" of the law. According to the Cornell Legal Information Institute popular names may have different purposes: 

What's in a popular name? Sometimes they say something about the substance of the law (as with the '2002 Winter Olympic Commemorative Coin Act'). Sometimes they are a way of recognizing or honoring the sponsor or creator of a particular law (as with the 'Taft-Hartley Act'). And sometimes they are meant to garner political support for a law by giving it a catchy name (as with the 'USA Patriot Act' or the 'Take Pride in America Act') or by invoking public outrage or sympathy (as with any number of laws named for victims of crimes). History books, newspapers, and other sources use the popular name to refer to these laws. 

 A Google search on "Jessica's Law" reveals that there's more than one Jessica's Law. The other Jessica's Law relates to sex offenders, is much more prevalent in the news, and comes up in Google searches more frequently than NH's Jessica’s Law. When you do find NH's Jessica's Law, the various news reports often don't give the citation or link to the actual law. Also, most of the news reports say that the law was passed in 2002. In fact it was passed in 2001 and went into effect in 2002. That one year makes a big difference when searching legal databases.

The Problem With Using Keyword Searching 

This is the entire text of RSA 265:79-b: "Whoever upon any way drives a vehicle negligently or causes a vehicle to be driven negligently, as defined in RSA 626:2, II(d), or in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger any person or property shall be guilty of a violation and shall be fined not less than $250 nor more than $500 for a first offense and not less than $500 nor more than $1,000 for a second or subsequent offense." Notice that Jessica's Law does not mention snow or ice at all even though this is the law you'll be cited under if you don't clear the snow off your car. This means that a keyword search in the Revised Statutes Online for "snow" "ice" and "motor vehicles," or some variation of that, doesn't work.  Also, although popular names are sometimes found within the text of statutes, in this case "Jessica's Law" is not part of the text of the law, so keyword searching the Revised Statutes Online for that phrase doesn't work either. 

Using the Print Index 

If you have access to the print index of the NH Revised Statutes Annotated, look under "Popular Name Laws -- Jessica's Law". You can find a reference also under "Negligence – Motor vehicles, operation -- RSA 265:79-b.  To verify that this was the law we were looking for (since it didn't mention snow or ice) we checked the history of the bill that created RSA 265:79-b. The testimony heard by New Hampshire legislators on House Bill 652 of the 2001 session confirmed that this was the right law.  

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