February 18, 2007

McMissiles in Virginia

I have to confess that this story in the Washington Post caught my eye because of the Mc- prefix. Some years ago I worked on a trademark case in which Quality Inns International was ultimately prohibited from calling a new hotel chain McSleep Inns. However dumb Quality Inn's idea was, the case was interesting because it showed the incredible legal power McDonald's has over language use.

Now a woman has been imprisoned in Stafford County Virginia for throwing a McDonald's super-size drink at another car as she drove north from North Carolina on Route 95. The traffic was snarled, tempers were short, and the driver who cut cut this woman off possibly deserved a rebuke of some sort. Who hasn't felt that way in such circumstances? For the court to give the woman a two-year sentence as a felon seems a bit much. But that's how Virginia law enforcement and its courts seem to work.

At the center of this case is the word, "missile." We normally associate it with military force and the wars in the Middle East. But Virginia law calls virtually anything thown by one person to something or someone else a missile. In this case a McDonald's soft drink apparently fits this category. The judge's insructions to the jury were that a missile is "any physical object" that "can be propelled by any force, including throwing." Throwing I understand, since it could have been a baseball, a coconut, or a hammer. But a soft drink in a paper cup seems more like a sandwich, a hat, or a magazine--more a muted physical signal of anger than a weapon.

The broad dictionary definitions of "missile" agree with Virginia law enforcement on this so maybe the police were within their rights, but where does this stop? If contemporary analyses of language tell us anything, they demonstrate that there is huge variability in the way people use it. In contrast, law often seems hell-bent on finding constructions that admit of little or no contextual or definitional variation. If I were to throw a pencil at a student who was acting inappropriately in my Virginia classroom, I could be tossed in jail for two years. It would be stupid of me to throw the pencil but punishment of two years in jail would seem excessive. But then, I'm not black, as the woman in this case is. We can only wonder what might have happened to a white thrower of a super large McDonald's soft drink cup in a community that is known to look less than favorably on black people. Get arrested? Maybe. Get a two year prison sentence? Not likely.

I wonder if community service has ever occurred to them?

[update] The Washington Post updates this story here with a few complications. The judge decided that the woman had been punished enough by her two months in jail.

Posted by Roger Shuy at February 18, 2007 06:52 PM