In West Virginia, people often drive their ATVs on their own property after drinking a few beers. The West Virginia Supreme Court, however, struck down this common cultural practice in a decision last month.
In a 4-1 opinion, the state high court ruled that the DMV can lawfully revoke driving privileges for drivers caught driving under the influence on private, as well as public, roads. The case came up to the state high court from the Monroe County Circuit Court.
In February 2012, Monroe County resident Joshua Beckett crashed his ATV on a family-owned farm. Beckett was taken in an ambulance to Greenbriar Valley Medical Center for treatment. A hospital blood test indicated that his blood-alcohol content was over twice the state’s legal limit.
Beckett was charged with DUI. A magistrate dismissed the charge, but his license was revoked for 45 days. Beckett appealed. The circuit court ruled for him, reasoning that his actions did not occur on public land. The DMV appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.
DMV representative and Assistant Attorney General Elaine Skorich argued that since Beckett sought hospital treatment for his injuries, the state had the authority to suspend his license. “If Mr. Beckett wanted the consequences of his actions to remain private,” Ms. Skorich wrote in her legal filing, “then he should have tended to his own injuries or obtained private transportation to the hospital instead of calling 911.”
While the West Virginia Supreme Court held for the DMV, it did not adopt Ms. Skorich’s reasoning. Instead, it simply relied on West Virginia law. Specifically, state DUI laws grant the DMV authority over anyone operating a motor vehicle “anywhere within the physical boundaries of this State.”
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Ketchum reasoned that the law is unambiguous. He wrote the that legislature chose to structure the DUI statutes to regulate the driver, rather than the location in which the driving takes place.
Ketchum concluded, “The Legislature’s definition of the phrase ‘in this State’  extends the reach of our driving-under-the-influence laws to any individual driving a vehicle within the physical boundaries of West Virginia, even if the vehicle is driven only upon private property not open to the general public.”
Chief Justice Ketchum also cited similar laws in other states, drawing from “nearly two dozen jurisdictions that had reached the exact opposite conclusion” from the circuit court. The judiciaries in all states with a similar statute have reached the same conclusion. These jurisdictions have held that if a state law criminalizes operating a car while intoxicated and contains no geographic restraint, courts should not read into the statute a requirement that the vehicle be operated exclusively on a public road. These courts held that the phrase “within this state” is not ambiguous and indicates the legislature’s intent to prohibit the operation of a vehicle while intoxicated anywhere within the boundaries of the state, whether on public or private land.
Benjamin dissented from the majority, reserving the right to file a separate opinion.
The West Virginia Supreme Court reinstated the DMV’s original decision. Justice Ketchum concluded that the lower court’s ruing was “plainly a wrong interpretation” of West Virginia’s DUI statutes and must be reversed.
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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