Unreasonable Use of Your Car Horn?

Written by Gregory Monte.

NOTE: This post specifically references the New York Motor Vehicle Code, but all states have some form of the “car horn” statute.

The Frustration …

Have you ever been annoyed when someone behind you impatiently blows his horn to get you to move at an intersection when the light turns green?

Or maybe you have been on the other side of that situation.  You are at the intersection, the light turns green, and the guy in front of you just sits there because he is busy checking out his Smartphone.  After waiting a couple of seconds, you “politely” remind him to wake up and get moving.

In either case, if a cop is nearby, he may actually issue a ticket based on a motor vehicle statute similar to New York’s Section 375(1)(a):

“…[a] horn or device shall produce a sound sufficiently loud to serve as a danger warning but shall not be used other than as a reasonable warning nor be unnecessarily loud or harsh.”

Unfortunately, “reasonable warning” and “unnecessarily loud or harsh” are so subjective that a cop could probably give you a ticket for any reason that he wants – like maybe he is having a bad day and wants to take it out on a lowly citizen.

Worth Fighting That Traffic Ticket?

The purpose of today’s blog post is to use this somewhat uncommon type of infraction to illustrate how to decide if a traffic ticket is worth fighting or not.  As it turns out, my initial research hinted at a way to possibly beat this kind of charge. Unfortunately, further research indicated the opposite.  This is typically the case with traffic statutes, which is why you need to spend some serious time using Google Scholar to find court cases which support your interpretation of the statute you have been charged with.

Case Law Technicality?

The first case I read about provided some helpful clarification of the “horn statute” which I initially though could be used to beat this type of ticket: People v. Bernstein, 2019 NY Slip Op 50725 – NY: Appellate Term, 2nd Dept. 2019

“We find that the verdict convicting defendant of unreasonable use of a horn (Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375 [1] [a]) was against the weight of the evidence. A relatively short, two-to-three-second horn blast, under the particular circumstances presented, was not an unreasonable use of a horn.

This quote reveals the kind of technicality that I recommend looking for in case law.  In fact, in a previous post I actually used the term “case law technicality” to describe helpful clarifications of statute like this one: Using “Case Law Technicalities” to Beat Traffic Tickets. Referencing this one short sentence, you could argue in court that your ticket was not reasonable if you only blew your horn for a couple of seconds. 

The only problem is that the judge in this decision qualified his 2-3 second “horn rule” by indicating that it would depend on “the particular circumstances presented.”

What were the circumstances in People v. Bernstein?  The police were clearing an accident scene:

“Police Officer Richard Lepore testified that a tow truck, his partner’s marked patrol vehicle, and his marked patrol vehicle had cleared an accident scene … Both police vehicles were driving at a speed of less than 20 miles per hour with their emergency lights flashing and left indicator lights blinking. Defendant was also sounding his horn for two to three seconds.”

So, the horn was used at the scene of an accident …

Not This Time …

Further use of Google Scholar clarified that a horn is only allowed to be used to warn of danger.  In People v. Velazquez, 2019 NY Slip Op 29166 – NY: City Court, Criminal Court 2019, the judges had the following to say:

“… the statute mandates every motor vehicle to have a horn that can sound a danger warning; and the statute further proscribes that horn from being used ‘other than as a reasonable [danger] warning … Thus, despite its frequent use in the city, honking is a traffic infraction if used in a non-emergency situation.”

In summary, good luck trying to fight a “horn ticket” unless you used it in an emergency type situation where there was some obvious danger.  Being stuck behind some jerk who continues to read his texts even after the light turns green doesn’t count.


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