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State v. BNSF Railway Co.

Court of Appeals of Kansas

November 2, 2018

State of Kansas, Appellee,
BNSF Railway Company, Appellant.


         1.The Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the United States Constitution, which establishes the doctrine of federal preemption, invalidates state laws that interfere with, or are contrary to, federal law.

         2. Because federal preemption involves an interpretation of law, appellate courts have an unlimited standard of review.

         3. Federal preemption is ultimately a question of congressional intent. Express preemption occurs when Congress makes its intent known through explicit statutory language. Implied preemption occurs when Congress does not expressly preempt state law, but its intent to do so can be inferred from a statutory or regulatory scheme.

         4.hen Congress fails to expressly preempt state law, there is a strong presumption that it did not intend to displace state law. However, the presumption against preemption is not triggered when the State regulates in an area where there has been a history of significant federal presence.

         5. istorically, federal regulation of railroads has been extensive, pervasive, and comprehensive.

         6. The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA), 49 U.S.C. § 10101 et seq. (2016), created the Surface Transportation Board to ensure the development and continuation of a sound rail transportation system in the United States. 49 U.S.C. § 10501(a)(1) (2016).

         7. In enacting the ICCTA, Congress granted the Surface Transportation Board exclusive jurisdiction over the construction, acquisition, operation, abandonment, or discontinuance of railroad tracks and facilities. Furthermore, Congress expressly stated that the remedies with respect to regulation of rail transportation set forth in the ICCTA are exclusive and preempt other remedies provided under federal or state law. 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b).

         8. The ICCTA preempts all state or local laws that may reasonably be said to have the effect of managing or governing the operations of a rail carrier. Even so, state and local authorities may continue to exercise traditional police powers to protect public health and safety so long as the application of such laws or regulations have only a remote or incidental effect on rail transportation.

          9. K.S.A. 66-273 prohibits railroad companies and corporations operating a railroad in Kansas from allowing trains to stand upon any public roadway near any incorporated or unincorporated city or town to exceed 10 minutes at any one time without leaving an opening on the roadway of at least 30 feet in width.

         10. Because K.S.A. 66-273 specifically targets railroad carriers and has an effect on railroad operations that is more than remote or incidental, it infringes upon the exclusive jurisdiction of the Surface Transportation Board.

          Appeal from Chase District Court; Douglas P. Jones, magistrate judge.

          Marianne M. Auld and Jody S. Sanders, of Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Noah K. Garcia, of Knight Nicastro, LLC, of Kansas City, Missouri, for appellant.

          Kristafer R. Ailslieger, deputy solicitor general, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, for appellee.

          Before Bruns, P.J., McAnany, J., and Burgess, S.J.

          BRUNS, J.

         BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) appeals its conviction for violating K.S.A. 66-273. This statute prohibits a railroad company from allowing its trains to stand upon a railroad crossing for more than 10 minutes without leaving an opening at least 30 feet wide on the public roadway. Following a bench trial, the district court found that a BNSF train blocked two crossings in Chase County for approximately four hours. Because we find that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, 49 U.S.C. § 10101 et seq. (2016), preempts K.S.A. 66-273, we reverse BNSF's conviction as a matter of law.


         BNSF operates a rail line through Chase County on which it operates freight trains. Both BNSF and Union Pacific operate trains on the track. Although BNSF does not have a rail yard or terminal in Chase County, it does have a side track adjacent to the main track near Bazaar. The side track is used to change crews, to perform maintenance, to allow other trains to pass, and for various other reasons.

         There are two grade crossings-located within several hundred feet of each other -where the main line and side tracks intersect with public roadways northeast of Bazaar. One is at the intersection with Norton Creek Road and the other is at the intersection with T Road. According to BNSF, it built the two grade crossings so closely together to minimize inconvenience for local residents whose property is only accessible by crossing the railroad tracks. Yet, as BNSF acknowledges, trains occasionally block both railroad crossings. This case involves one of those occasions.

         Shortly after 6 a.m. on the morning of December 19, 2016, the Chase County Sheriff's Department received a call reporting a stopped train blocking both of the railroad crossings. Sheriff Richard Dorneker arrived at the scene around 8 a.m. He spoke to a BNSF employee who he saw walking up and down the tracks. Although the BNSF employee told Sheriff Dorneker that he had to check the train, he evidently offered no additional information regarding why the train was stopped.

         After assessing the situation, Sheriff Dorneker instructed someone in his office to call BNSF in an attempt to clear the railroad crossings. Although the Sheriff's office apparently placed three phone calls to BNSF, the crossings remained blocked until 9:54 a.m. As a result, Sheriff Dorneker issued BNSF a citation-which listed Engine No. 7220 and Engine No. 8169-for blocking the railroad crossings for four hours and six minutes in violation of K.S.A. 66-273.

         Prior to trial, BNSF moved to dismiss the citation. In the motion, BNSF argued that the State had failed to come forward with sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to trial. BNSF also argued that federal law preempts the Kansas statute. The district court heard the motion on March 14, 2017. On April 18, 2017, the district court denied the motion. In its memorandum decision, the district court found that the State had come forward with sufficient evidence to go to trial. In addition, the district court ruled that federal law did not preempt K.S.A. 66-273.

         On June 1, 2017, the district court held a bench trial. The State offered the testimony of Sheriff Dorneker and several residents affected by the blocked railroad crossings on the morning of December 19, 2016. Several area residents testified that they missed work that day because the crossings were blocked. Likewise, because of the blocked crossings, service technicians were unable to reach the house of one resident who had no water and was having problems with his heating ...

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