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West Virginia Court Clarifies Position On DUI On Private Property

Posted by Aaron J. Wolff | Dec 13, 2016 | 0 Comments

In 2014, there were over 1.1 million people arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or other substances. People can get a DUI while operating all kinds of motor vehicles including golf carts, ATV's, and mopeds. The West Virginia Supreme Court recently dealt with the issue of where an individual can get a DUI in the case of Reed v. Beckett. The opinion was handed down in late October 2016 and authored by Chief Justice Ketchum.

The issue in the case was "whether a person may lose his/her driver's license because, while under the influence of alcohol, he/she operated a vehicle solely upon private land." The appeal did not stem from a criminal case, but rather from an individual appealing the loss of his license. Joshua Beckett was injured while driving his ATV on "on family-owned farm land, in a field that was not open to the public." A friend called 911 and brought him to a highway to be picked up by the ambulance. Beckett's BAC was tested at the hospital and was found to be .17 percent. He was subsequently charged with an aggravated DUI, though the charge was later dismissed.

In most states, a DUI charge can result in an individual's license being revoked for a period of time. License revocation is not a criminal penalty, rather it is an administrative one. In Beckett's case, his license was revoked for 45 days by the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles. He contested the revocation arguing that "his license could not be revoked because he was driving the unlicensed ATV only upon private, family-owned land, and there was no evidence he was driving on a public street or highway." He lost his appeal at the DMV, but the circuit court agreed with him, concluding, "because Mr. Beckett's 'actions did not occur on land open to public use,' the Commissioner had no jurisdiction to revoke Mr. Beckett's driving privileges."

However, the West Virginia Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court's decision.

The high court stated that "[t]he Commissioner may administratively revoke a person's license to drive if the Commissioner determines that the person violated a criminal DUI statute." The point that the Beckett and the DMV disagreed on was the meaning of the phrase, "person who drives a vehicle in this state." The court looked at whether this phrase meant anywhere within the "physical boundaries" of West Virginia, or if the statute was limited to DUI offenses that occurred on the public roads. The definition in the statute stated that it means "anywhere within the physical boundaries of this state including but not limited to, publicly maintained streets and highways, and subdivision streets or other areas not publicly maintained but nonetheless open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel."

Though in a prior case the court had held that "a defendant could not be charged for driving while intoxicated on a private parking lot," the legislature had since "expanded the meaning to the phrase 'in this State,'" effectively overruling the prior court decision.

The court determined that the definition of "in this state" is "clear and unambiguous," stating " [t]he Legislature expressed its plain intent to prohibit an intoxicated person from driving a vehicle anywhere in West Virginia, whether on public roads or across private land." The court also pointed out that a number of other jurisdictions have found that "the phrase 'within this state' is not ambiguous and indicates the legislature's intent to prohibit operation of a vehicle while intoxicated anywhere within the boundaries of the state, whether upon public or private land."

Thus the West Virginia Supreme Court held that the "Legislature's definition of the phrase 'in this State' . . . extends the reach of our DUI 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." The court then overruled the circuit court's decision and remanded the case.

About the Author

Aaron J. Wolff

A former DUI prosecutor, Aaron Wolff has over 16 years of experience in representing people accused of DUI and is recognized as one of the leading defense lawyers in Washington State. His relentless and passionate advocacy has lead to superb ratings and outstanding reviews from former clients.

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