BUSINESS LAW 101 / Railroad Crimes

By Albert L. Kelley, Esq.

We generally don’t think of railroads much anymore.  With most families owning at least one car, we forget that railroads were once the predominate form of transportation.  In 1916 railroads carried about 77% of all intercity freight traffic and 98% of all intercity passenger business. In the 1940’s, the airlines began to rival railways, and by 1960’s the age of the railroad seemed to have come to an end.  But even today, railroads are heavily used. In 2020, it was estimated that trains accounted for 28% of freight transportation across the country.  In addition, last year 12.2 million people rode on AMTRAK alone, not including other passenger train lines in this country. With these numbers, it is not surprising that there are criminal laws on the books related to railway travel.  

One of the most famous rock train songs discusses a criminal act.  In 1969, Jerry Garcia of the grateful Dead and lyricist Robert Hunter penned the words, “Driving that train, High on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed.”  While there is no evidence the real Casey Jones was under the influence when his train crashed (he actually was hailed a hero), there are laws making the actions in the song’s lyrics criminal. Florida Statute 860.03 makes it a second-degree misdemeanor for a person who is operating or in charge of any railroad, acting as a brakeman, operating the railroad switches, bridges or signals to be intoxicated (the law also applies to the captain or pilot of a steamboat).  In addition, the actions also have ramifications for the rail company.  Florida Statute 860.01 states that if anyone who has management or control over any railroad train, steamboat, or other public conveyance used for the common carriage of passengers is guilty of gross carelessness or neglect in relation to the conduct, management and control of such conveyance, they shall be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor (allowing a conductor to operate while intoxicated seems like it would classify as gross negligence).  

There are other aspects of Americana history involving railroads that are also criminal.  Most movies involving trains have a scene where someone hops on the train without paying the fare.  In Florida, that is a straight trip to jail as a second-degree misdemeanor.     Another common movie scene is when someone disconnects a railroad car or cars from the engine.  Not only is this extremely dangerous, but it is also highly illegal, leading to a third-degree felony. Keeping with the theme, another common movie scene is someone giving the train a wrong signal or signaling the train to slow down.  Unless you are trying to prevent an accident, this is a second-degree misdemeanor.  The removal or interference with the signaling system is a third-degree felony. The final movie scene is when someone switches the tracks, making the train take an unexpected turn.  Switching the tracks is also a third-degree felony (as is blocking the tracks or interfering with railroad equipment in the right-of-way).  

Okay, one more movie scene- the old westerns showed trains with cow catchers on the front- those angular pieces designed to clear debris in front of the train. Occasionally a film would show a train slowing down because of a herd of cattle on the tracks.  It is actually illegal to drive cattle onto a train track or take actions to entice cattle to go towards a train track.  It is deemed a second-degree misdemeanor. 

Anyone who uses the rails for the commission of a crime, is (in addition to the charge for the crime) guilty of a third-degree felony.  

Al Kelley has worked as an attorney in Monroe County for the last 32 years. He is the author of five law books available through Absolutely Amazing E-Books and the host of “Basics Of The Law”, a legal YouTube channel. He serves as the Vice Chair of the 16th Judicial Circuit Professionalism Panel.  He also previously taught business law, personnel law, and labor law at St. Leo University. This article is offered as a public service and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. If you have any questions about legal issues, you should confer with a licensed Florida attorney.

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