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Court of appeals upholds ticket for zigging when sign said zag

City of Madison v. Jeffrey K. Crossfield, 2015AP800, 2/18/16, District 4 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity

The court rejects a motorist’s claim that he broke no law when, approaching a sign directing him to merge left, he instead went right.

Crossfield was driving on the Madison beltline when he came upon a road crew working in the rightmost lane and shoulder. The city’s witnesses testified that they had positioned a truck with an electronic message board about a quarter mile behind the crew, and that the message board stated “that the right lane was closed, and it says merge left.” (¶¶13-14).  Crossfield did not merge left but instead steered to the right, onto the shoulder and around the truck. (¶13). He received a citation for failing to obey an official traffic sign contrary to a local ordinance adopting Wis. Stat. § 346.04(2).

Crossfield fought the case pro se in the municipal court, which conducted a hearing, and on losing there appealed to the circuit court, which affirmed.  (¶6). The court of appeals, reviewing the municipal court’s decision, Village of Williams Bay v. Metzl, 124 Wis. 2d 356, 361, 369 N.W.2d 186 (1985), discerns two issues for appeal: first, whether the sign said what the city said it said, and second, whether it met the statutory definition of “official traffic sign.”

On the first issue, the standard of review does the work:

In finding that the sign read “right lane closed-merge left,” the municipal court found Harried and Seid’s testimony more credible than Crossfield’s testimony. Indeed, as the municipal court noted, “[i]t would make less sense for the sign to have only said right lane closed without also advising motorists to merge left.” To the extent that Crossfield argues that the testimony of these two witnesses is not credible, his argument is unpersuasive. For example, Crossfield suggests that because Harried was driving in the second crash truck, which was ahead of the message board truck driven by Seid, Harried could not have direct knowledge of the content of the sign that day. However, it is reasonable to infer that Harried, as a member of the repair crew, would have direct knowledge of what was in fact displayed on the message board that day.

(¶17).

As to the second issue, Crossfield argues that the sign in question did not comply with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, as is required by Wis. Stat. § 349.065. However, the court determines that Crossfield’s two complaints about the sign–the height of its letters and the distance from which it was visible–are not controlled by the Manual’s “Standards,” which are mandatory, but are merely suggested by its discretionary “Guidance.” (¶¶22-23).

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