Criminal Law

You may want to think twice about drinking and driving in West Virginia – even on your own property

Drinking Driving

Anyone who has ever grown up in the country knows that the rules can differ between urban areas and rural areas. Even when the legislation doesn’t differ officially, there can be pronounced differences in mentality. Many rural residents of West Virginia were dismayed to find that the legal lines may be not be entirely clear-cut when it comes to drinking and driving, even if you never leave the confines of your own property.

If you’re not concerned about potential harm to yourself, a libertarian mentality might favor the freedom to make your own decisions about your own well-being. Only when you encroach on the rights or safety of the public, according to such logic, can the law step in, to take away those rights?

That is what makes the new ruling in West Virginia so controversial. If you choose to drink a whole lot of alcohol and hop on a vehicle or ATV, where the only one you can injure is yourself, then who is the government to come in and put restrictions on what you can and cannot do?

The state of West Virginia High Court voted four to one that the state Division of Motor Vehicles has the right to revoke the license of anyone who is caught driving while intoxicated, even if they never leave the boundaries of their private property.

The case stems from a 2012 incident in which, Joshua Beckett, a Monroe County resident, wrecked his ATV while riding around on his family-owned private property farm. When he showed up at the hospital, he admitted that he had been drinking, and a blood test confirmed that he had exceeded the legal drinking limit. His blood alcohol content was more than 0.17, which is nearly twice the legal DUI limit in the state of West Virginia.

You could certainly argue that he made some grave mistakes by unwittingly incriminating himself, presumably because he was not under the impression he could be charged with a DUI under those circumstances. Not even considering the fact that he could be charged and could never find an accident lawyer to represent him, he had no reason not to subject himself to the blood testing, nor to refuse to incriminate himself when asked if he had been drinking. After all, he never left his private property or put anyone in jeopardy, other than himself.

The problem?

A Sheriff’s Deputy charged him with driving while under the influence, according to the West Virginia law. Although a magistrate dismissed the charges, the pending police officer notified the state Division of Motor Vehicles, who decided to revoke Beckett’s license for the period of 45 days due to the incident.

Beckett appealed the ruling, saying that his private property should not be beholden to the same rules and regulations as public property. Since it was on his property, he should have the right to do what he wanted without fear of prosecution by outside authorities. The circuit judge ruled in his favor citing that he did not use public land while driving, but it was then passed onto the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court found in favor of the Department of Motor Vehicles, because the law states that no one may operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated. The law, as stated, does not discern between public and private land. The code merely relates to the state boundaries, not giving provisions between what is independently owned and what is governmentally owned.

The law’s intention, according to Chief Justice Menis Ketchum, is to structure the way in which drivers have a code of conduct, not to specify where that conduct occurs. If you are intoxicated, the law does not differentiate between whether you are driving up and down your driveway or on a major interstate. The law states that you may not be behind the wheel of an automobile after drinking more than the legal limit.

Many West Virginia residents feel as if the ruling is an overreach of governmental powers, and encroaches upon the liberties that people have to do as they please on private property. But for now, it is illegal to drive anything, anywhere, while intoxicated.

Beckett learned the hard way, by using his ATV after drinking, that the laws that govern drinking while intoxicated do not differentiate between public and private property. Not a matter of public health, this case was more about what the legislative branch can and cannot control in the lives of the people that it has jurisdiction over.

Aaron Gordon is a writer for various blogs.

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