Traffic Signs Posted on Private Property

Today I will discuss traffic signs posted on private property.

Michael W. Flynn
March 15, 2008

First, a disclaimer: Although I am an attorney, the legal information in this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Further, I do not intend to create an attorney-client relationship with any listener.   

Before getting into today’s topic, I have a purely personal announcement: my sister Tory is getting married this weekend! I am so excited for her, and am happy to welcome her fiancé Ryan into the family. Congrats!

Today I will discuss traffic signs posted on private property. Amanda from Colorado wrote:

Recently, my apartment complex got a little overzealous about posting stop signs in our parking lot. … When there is clearly no one else around, I consider not stopping at these signs. This leads to my question: when stop signs are posted on private property, as with my apartment complex parking lot, am I legally required to stop? Do these stop signs carry the same weight as stop signs on public roads? Finally, if I had a long driveway, could I buy a stop sign and post it halfway down the drive? Would visitors to my house be obliged to follow its instruction?

The short and practical answer is that the police usually have the power to enforce traffic regulations on private property. With regard to private enforcement, it all depends on contracts that you sign. 

Generally, statutory traffic regulations or rules of the road have no application to traffic on private ways or premises. However, this principle has often been qualified to hold that such traffic regulations or rules are applicable to private ways or premises used generally by the public for travel. For example, a man in the District of Columbia was convicted of driving without a license, even though he started his car on private property, and was only seen driving on private property. The court reasoned that unless a motor vehicle law is limited to public property by its own terms, the law applies to all drivers on both public and private property. Several states have followed this general rule including New York, New Jersey, Texas, Iowa and others. Other states have followed this rationale only when examining laws that are more broadly intended to protect against dangerous driving. So, most states permit a police officer to enforce drunk driving laws on any property, public or private, because driving drunk is so inherently dangerous. 

Some states, including Massachusetts, Maine and Montana have specific laws that all traffic and motor vehicle laws apply on public property, as well as any private property that is generally open to the public. So, a stop sign posted in a mall parking lot would be enforceable by the police, but a stop sign posted at the end of a private driveway might not be. With regard to Amanda’s apartment complex, a court would likely consider it more like a mall parking lot because any member of the public might drive in the lot to visit a friend or relative. In some states, only traffic signs that are identical to those the state uses are enforceable by police. A small stop sign or a green sign would not work. 

Amanda asked if her visitors would be obliged to follow a stop sign on a private road. Assuming the stop sign is not enforceable as law, Amanda could not really enforce it per se. She could condition your right to enter the property on following your sign, and might have some sort of trespass action for failing to do so after notice of her condition. But, she would not likely be able to give you a ticket and sue if you did not pay it. The main reason would be that she would have a hard time proving that she was damaged as a result. 

With regard to private enforcement, the language in your lease or HOA rules would likely govern. If you sign a lease that includes a provision that you must obey all posted traffic signs, then you are bound by that term. It might be difficult for the apartment complex owner to assign any amount of damages that it could assess against you if the lease did not provide an exact number, but the owner might be able to evict you for breaching a portion of the lease. It really all depends on the lease. The same type of logic would apply to a condo complex governed by CC&Rs or HOA rules. The HOA could assess a fine in order to keep you in compliance.

Last, even if the signs are not enforceable as law, their existence is relevant to events like accidents. For example, if you run a stop sign in a parking lot and hit someone, then the person you hit might sue for negligence. Part of the negligence case would be to prove that you had a duty to drive safely, and that you breached that duty. It would be very convincing to show that there was a clearly-marked stop sign, and argue that the other driver would expect you to follow that stop sign. Your failure to do so is strong evidence that you breached the duty to drive safely. 

Overall, it is probably better to follow signs – the moment of inconvenience is a small price to pay to avoid a lawsuit. 

Thank you for listening to Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. Be sure to check out all the excellent Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts at QuickAndDirtyTips.com and don't forget to check out the 30-day free trial at GoToMyPC.com/podcast.    

You can send questions and comments to legal@qdnow.com. Please note that doing so will not create an attorney-client relationship and will be used for the purposes of this podcast only.

Legal Lad's theme music is "No Good Layabout" by Kevin MacLeod.