private property

West Virginia Supreme Court Rules for DUI on Private Property

The West Virginia Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision and ruled that people can be arrested and convicted of driving under the influence even if it occurred on private property and have their licenses revoked.

The case stems from an incident in 2012 when a man by the name of Joshua Beckett crashed an ATV in a field on the farm owned by his family. Following the collision, Beckett was taken to the hospital where it was discovered that his blood alcohol content was 0.17 percent. He was subsequently charged with driving under the influence.

A magistrate dismissed the DUI case, but an administrative judge upheld a prior revocation of Beckett’s driver’s license for 45 days notwithstanding Beckett’s argument that there was no evidence that he drove on a public street or highway.

Beckett appealed the decision to the Monroe County Circuit Court. There, the circuit court judge ruled that because Beckett’s “actions did not occur on land open to public use,” the administrative judge did not have jurisdiction to revoke his license.

The Division of Motor Vehicles’ commissioner who originally revoked Beckett’s license appealed the decision to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

“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 who wrote a portion of the majority opinion. “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.”

The decision and its rationale mirrors that which the law here in California.

Division 11 of the California Vehicle Code sets forth the “rules of the road,” if you will, which includes California’s laws against driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol content or higher and driving while under the influence. California Vehicle Code section 21001 states, “The provisions of [Division 11] refer exclusively to the operation of vehicles upon the highways, unless a different place is specifically referred to.” The Code then goes on to state, “[t]he provisions of this chapter apply to vehicles upon the highways and elsewhere throughout the State unless expressly provided otherwise.”

Prior to 1982 the vehicle code made it illegal to drive drunk “upon a highway or upon other than a highway areas in which are open to the general public.” However, in 1982, the legislature deleted the language referring to the locations upon which a person could be arrested and ultimately convicted of drunk driving.

The California Court of Appeals in People v. Malvitz relied on the earlier version of the California Vehicle Code to help clarify the issue. The Court concluded that the “statute that prohibited driving under the influence of alcohol and/or any drug has emerged unencumbered with any language restricting its reach.”

In other words, the Court concluded that it was the intent of the legislature that, in deleting the portion of the statute which referred to location, the law which prohibits drunk driving should extend to anywhere in California where drunk drivers pose a threat included public highways as well private property.

Furthermore, California Vehicle Code section 23215 states, “[law enforcement] may, but shall not be required to, provide patrol or enforce the provisions of [California’s DUI law] for offenses which occur other than upon a highway.”

Whether you’re in West Virginia or in California, it is illegal to drive under the influence on public roads as well as on private property.