Supreme Court rules driving under influence on private property a crime

Gazette-Mail file photo
A man drives an ATV down a trail. The state Supreme Court has ruled 4-1 that people can be arrested for driving under the influence on private property, reversing a Monroe County circuit judge’s decision.

The West Virginia Supreme Court reversed a Monroe County circuit judge’s order and ruled that people can be arrested for driving under the influence and have their driver’s licenses taken away even if they’re driving on private property.

“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 Menis Ketchum wrote in the majority opinion filed last Wednesday.

The decision overturns a “plainly ... wrong interpretation of our DUI statutes” by Monroe Circuit Judge Robert Irons. Justices, in a 4-1 decision, reinstated a ruling made by the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

Justice Brent Benjamin dissented from the majority and reserved the right to file a separate opinion.

In February 2012, Joshua Beckett wrecked driving an ATV in a field on farmland owned by his family. He was transported to a hospital, where tests showed he had a blood alcohol content of 0.17. The legal limit in West Virginia is 0.08. He was charged with DUI.

After a magistrate dismissed the DUI charge, deputies with the Monroe Sheriff’s Office notified the commissioner of the state Division of Motor Vehicles about Beckett driving while under the influence.

Four months after the incident on the ATV, in May 2012, the commissioner revoked Beckett’s driver’s license for 45 days. The order revoking his license was put on hold while Beckett filed an appeal.

Beckett argued to an administrative law judge that his license couldn’t be suspended because he was driving the ATV on private, family-owned land, the Supreme Court opinion states. He argued that there was also no evidence of him driving on a public street or highway, Ketchum wrote.

The administrative judge ultimately rejected his argument and upheld the 45-day revocation order.

Next, Beckett took his case to Monroe Circuit Court, where Irons concluded that because Beckett’s “actions did not occur on land open to public use,” the previous judges had no jurisdiction to revoke the man’s driving privileges, according to the opinion.

The Division of Motor Vehicles commissioner appealed Irons’ decision.

“The Legislature chose to structure our DUI statutes to regulate the condition of the driver, not the locale in which the driving is taking place. Thus, the 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,” Ketchum wrote.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @KateLWhite on Twitter.

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