WV Supreme Court says drunk driving is illegal on private property

You may like to drink a few cold beers and ride around on your ATV on your property, but just know that according to state Supreme Court, you are still subject to the state’s drunk driving laws.

In a decision released last week, the high court ruled 4-1 that the state Division of Motor Vehicles has the authority to revoke driving privileges for motorists caught driving drunk on private property [emphasis added] as well as the public roads.

The case originated in Monroe County, where in 2012 Joshua Beckett wrecked while riding an ATV on a family-owned farm.  Beckett admitted he had been drinking and tests at the hospital allegedly showed his blood-alcohol content at 0.17, twice the legal limit.

A sheriff’s deputy charged Beckett with driving under the influence. A magistrate dismissed the charge, but while it was pending police notified the state Division of Motor Vehicles, which revoked Beckett’s license for 45 days.

Beckett appealed and a circuit judge ruled in his favor, saying that Beckett’s “actions did not occur on land open to public use.” The DMV then appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

The High Court found in favor of the DMV, citing the state’s drunk driving law which says the agency has authority over anyone operating a motor vehicle anywhere in the state. The code section further defines that as “anywhere within the physical boundaries of this State.”

Chief Justice Menis Ketchum, writing for the majority, said the law is unambiguous. “The Legislature chose to structure our DUI statues to regulate the condition of the driver, not the locale in which the driving is taking place.”

Ketchum cited similar laws in other states. “If a state law criminalizes the operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated, and the law contains no geographic constraint, then the courts will not read into the statute a requirement that the vehicle be operated exclusively on a public highway.”

Clearly driving while intoxicated creates a risk to the operator, as well as to innocent motorists who are sharing the highway, but Beckett was riding the ATV on private property. He wasn’t on the road, or even in a parking lot or a subdivision. The field where Beckett was riding was not open to the public.

Drunk driving is a serious public health concern, but was it really the intent of the legislature to extend enforcement onto an individual’s private property?  That rings of a government overreach.

The court may not have had much leeway in the matter given the language of the statute, although we look forward to Justice Brent Benjamin’s dissent.  Benjamin, who has a libertarian streak, must also question just how far such laws should extend.

Just know that as the law now stands, driving while intoxicated is against the law anywhere and everywhere in West Virginia, from government controlled roads all the way to the lower forty acres on your farm.



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