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Bicyclists Cannot Be Convicted of DUIs in Washington State

Washington State law defines “vehicle” to include bicycles. In 1995, however, the Washington Court of Appeals ruled that the state DUI statute does not include bicycles. While this case is not controlling law in Illinois, attorneys who help people charged with an Illinois DUI find its reasoning compelling.

At about 3 a.m. in June 1992, the defendant was riding his bicycle in Montesano, Washington. An officer pulled him over after watching him swerve and make wide turns. The officer testified that the defendant had slurred speech and smelled like alcohol. The officer asked him to perform field sobriety tests, several of which he failed. He was arrested for DUI. At the station, he waived his Miranda rights. A breath test indicated his blood alcohol level was .13.

Following a bench trial, he was convicted of driving while intoxicated. His motion for a new trial was denied, and he appealed.

The Washington Court of Appeals concluded, based on a review of the statutory scheme, that the Legislature did not intend to apply the DUI law to bicyclists. The various statutory provisions regarding DUI are closely connected. For example, being in physical control of a motor vehicle is a lesser included offense of driving a vehicle while intoxicated. The additional element of DUI, as opposed to physical control, is vehicular motion. However, since the crime of physical control requires that a person be in control of a motor vehicle, it does not apply to bicycles.

Courts construe statutes to avoid “absurd or strained consequences.” The Washington Court of Appeals concluded that including bicyclists in the crime of driving under the influence, but not in the lesser included offense of physical control, would lead to an absurd result. The court did not believe that this was the result intended by the Legislature. Instead, it appeared that the Legislature used the terms “vehicle” and “motor vehicle” interchangeably. The court noted that this inattentive drafting did not create a question of interpretation at the time these laws were passed, since no possible consequences for bicyclists could attach to the intermittent use of the term “vehicle” rather than “motor vehicle,” for neither term included bicycles.

The court was not persuaded by the 1991 amendment that brought bicycles into the definition of vehicles as part of the Bicycle Safety Act. The purpose of this act, the appeals court explained, was bicycle safety and awareness. Nothing in its history suggested that legislators considered its impact on DUI laws. Moreover, the law under which the defendant was charged had been twice amended since the enactment of the Bicycle Safety Act, in 1993 and again in 1994. Neither of these two most recent amendments altered the 1987 legislative finding that referred to “motor vehicles” or made any reference to an expanded definition of “vehicle.”

The court further held that policy considerations supported the conclusion that bicyclists cannot be charged under the state’s DUI laws. A California court, in holding that DUI laws do not apply to bicyclists, highlighted the differences between driving and biking. The court noted that DUI laws reflect a public concern over the threat to public safety posed by combining impaired faculties with a vehicle capable of great force and speed.

The Washington Appeals Court agreed that while riding a bicycle drunk may be dangerous, it is not the same as driving a car while intoxicated, which poses an extreme danger to the driver and to others. That danger is inherent in motor vehicles due to their weight and rapid speed. Moreover, since bicyclists are required to abide by the rules of the road, police may cite any person riding in an unsafe manner, whether it is caused by intoxication or something else.

Thus, the court held that neither legislative intent, the statutory scheme, nor public policy supported the conclusion that the DUI statute was intended to apply to bicyclists. Accordingly, the conviction was reversed.

In Oregon, however, you may be cited for a DUI for biking under the influence.

If you have been charged with a DUI offense in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation to people in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses and representing drivers with revoked licenses before the Illinois Secretary of State. To learn more, and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 217.525.0520.

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