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Walking Wars


A verdict on Fargo jay-walking was reported on this date in 1944 by the Minnesota Supreme Court. How the Minnesota Supreme Court came to rule on Fargo’s city ordinances came about after a Minnesota resident was hit by a Moorhead-owned vehicle in the streets of Fargo, leading to a string of court hearings and opinions regarding the letter of Fargo’s city laws.

The issue of jay-walking drew legal attention three years earlier, on the night of October 14th, 1941, when William Smith of Moorhead reported for duty at the Fargo Theater, where he worked as a motion picture operator. Following his shift, Smith left the Theater and began crossing Broadway when he was struck by a Fargo mail truck attempting to pass a slower vehicle. Although contracted by the city of Fargo, the truck was owned by S. Barry of Moorhead.

Smith suffered injuries during the accident that required several weeks of recuperation. In an attempt to gain compensation for his damages, he brought a suit against Mr. Barry in Moorhead’s Clay County District Court. Mr. Barry’s defense claimed that by crossing the street, Smith had been jay-walking against Fargo law, and therefore had no standing to collect damages. Smith’s lawyer, however, claimed that Fargo’s laws did not make jay-walking illegal, being worded in a way that did not out-right prohibit the transection of city streets.

After two hung juries, a third trial resulted in damages of $9,375 being awarded to Mr. Smith. Barry appealed the verdict to the Minnesota Supreme Court, who ruled again in favor of Smith, claiming that “An examination of the ordinances leads us to the conclusion that there was no intention on the part of the Fargo city commission to forbid pedestrians from crossing streets at points other than the crosswalks. In at least two of the ordinances quoted, consent to cross streets at points other than crosswalks may be clearly implied…” Fargo City Attorney C. C. Wattam reported that the city “…certainly intended to prevent jay-walking – that’s why the ordinance was passed.”

Despite the city’s intent, it seemed that a more clearly defined ordinance was needed, which was later passed. In the meantime, jay-walkers across the city continued to cross the streets without fear of reprisal, thanks in part to Minnesota.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job


The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. Friday (Evening ed.), December 29, 1944: p. 1.