Missouri Driving While Intoxicated Update: Is a Dirt Bike a 'Motor Vehicle'?

Post date: Sep 14, 2012 10:02:16 PM

An interesting case was handed down recently (September 12, 2012) that reminds me of a previous post I did about riding animals or riding a tandem bike while intoxicated (neither of which seem to be illegal). Conveniently enough, however, I had started wondering about the possibility of receiving a DWI for driving a motorized wheelchair while intoxicated. If you - like me - had this same curiosity, then you are in luck. But first, the case of the DWI dirt bike.

To start, Missouri Statute Section 577.010.1 provides that a "person commits the crime of driving while intoxicated (DWI) if he operates a motor vehicle while in an intoxicated or drugged condition."

According to the above statute, the crime of DWI requires a showing of two elements: (1) operation of a motor vehicle, and (2) while in an intoxicated or drugged condition. This is pretty straightforward. But what is not instantly clear is what constitutes a "motor vehicle." This issue was recently addressed in State v. Slavens (MO App S.D. 2012).

    • In Slavens, the defendant was charged and convicted of DWI for riding his 'dirt bike' on his own private property. Not helping the matter, Slavens was involved in an accident that required medical personnel and the highway patrol. After their arrival, Slavens admitted to drinking and a blood sample drawn resulted in a BAC of 0.226. Needless to say, he was intoxicated. After the conviction, Slavens appealed and argued that he should not be guilty of DWI for riding his dirt bike on his own property. In addressing the issue, the court had to determine what exactly qualifies as a 'motor vehicle' under the DWI statute.In trying to wrap their heads around the definition of 'motor vehicle,' the court did a good job of explaining what IS and is NOT a motor vehicle. For example:A lawnmower is NOT a motor vehicle. At least when it comes to stealing. Fainter v. State, 174 S.W.3d 718 (Mo. App. W.D. 2005).

    • BUT a lawnmower IS a motor vehicle when it is operated on a public highway. Stonger v. Riggs, 85 S.W.3d 703 (Mo. App. W.D. 2002).

    • A golf cart IS a motor vehicle when it is operated on a public highway. Covert v. Fisher, 151 S.W.3d 70 (Mo. App. E.D. 2004).

    • A farm tractor IS a motor vehicle when it is operated on a public highway, specifically addressed in relation to a DWI. State v. Powell, 306 S.W.2d 531 (Mo. 1957).

    • A motorized bicycle or mini-bike IS a motor vehicle when it is operated on a public highway, specifically addressed in relation to a DWI. State v. Laplante, 148 S.W.3d 347 (Mo. App. S.D. 2004).

In distinguishing the above examples, the Slavens court stated:

"What we have in the present matter differs from the [above] cases in that we have a dirt bike, a non-traditional vehicle in terms of its intended operation on trails and tracks, being operated on a defendant's private property as opposed to a public roadway or highway. Like the lawnmower in Fainter, which had a primary purpose of cutting grass in addition to being able to transport people, the dirt bike in the present matter was intended to ride through mud, jump piles of dirt and debris, and navigate mountainous off-road terrain in addition to having the ability to transport people."

The Court really makes dirt bikes sound like a lot of fun.

Continuing with their analysis, the Slavens court acknowledged the ambiguity in the DWI statute:

"As worded, with no definition of 'motor vehicle' referenced and no mention of whether operation on public property is a requirement, 'the [DWI] statute allows for more than one interpretation."

Because of the ambiguity, the court applied the rule of lenity and essentially gave the defendant the benefit of the doubt, for lack of a better [non-legal] term.

Based on all of the above, the court then explained their decision to reverse the conviction by stating the following:

"It is clear in the present matter that a finding that [the defendant's] operation of his dirt bike on private property exposed him to prosecution under the DWI statute would lead to an illogical result and would open a Pandora's Box of potential locations and situations which would subject people to new criminal liability."

To really drive their point home, the Court elaborated on the "Pandora's Box" analogy by giving some interesting examples:

"Under the reading of the statute urged by the State, every citizen who consumes alcoholic beverages while on a golf course, then operates a golf cart upon that private property, would be potentially subjected to DWI sanctions. This goes for every person who imbibes spirits and then mows his own lawn with a riding lawn mower, as well as people who operate motorized wheelchairs. In fact, the State in this case agreed that prosecution of an operator of a motorized wheelchair, within the confines of the operator's home, would be possible if this conviction stands. Such unreasonable and absurd results cannot have been intended in the drafting of the statute by the legislature."

And there you have it. The Court graciously answered our pressing question about motorized wheelchair DWIs.

To summarize, here is what we have learned from the Slavens case:**

  • You cannot receive a DWI if you ride a dirt bike on your own property.

  • You cannot receive a DWI if you drive a golf cart on the golf course (or your own property).

  • You cannot receive a DWI if you drive a wheelchair on your own property.

  • BUT, you can probably receive a DWI if you drive any of the above (including a lawnmower, tractor or a mini-bike) on a public roadway.

As a parting gift, I will leave you with another question to contemplate in the quiet of your study: Can an intoxicated person driving a motorized wheelchair on the public sidewalk receive a DWI? It's not private property but it also does not seem to qualify under public roadway. Do we have a potential loophole? I really don't know.

**Disclaimer: nothing in this educational article should be construed as legal advice, nor should it be interpreted as encouraging drinking and driving of any kind, even if it is apparently legal under Slavens.