The Michigan Court of Appeals has handed down an interesting ruling this week that a man arrested for driving drunk in his own driveway cannot be pros in favor of a man who was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated . . . in his own driveway. In a 2-1 opinion, the court ruled that Gina Robert Rea’s driving 25 feet in this driveway did not constitute “operating his vehicle in an area generally accessible to motor vehicles.”
The court laid out the basic facts:
Late one spring night, defendant had a lot to drink and withdrew to his Cadillac sedan to listen to loud music. A neighbor objected to the noise and called the police. Two officers responded. They found defendant seated in his car, the driver’s door ajar. The vehicle was parked deep in defendant’s driveway, next to his house. An officer instructed defendant to turn down the music. The neighbor complained a second time, and one of the officers returned to the scene. The officer heard no music and could not see the Cadillac.
When the third noise dispatch issued, Northville police officer Ken Delano parked on the street near defendant’s home and began walking up defendant’s driveway. The door to the detached garage opened and defendant’s vehicle backed out for “about 25 feet” before stopping. [*2] At that point the car was still in defendant’s side or backyard. As noted by the officer:
Q. . . . So at all times he was either in his side yard or in his own backyard, correct?
A. Yes, sir.
Defendant then pulled the car back into the garage. He was arrested as he walked toward his house.
So the car never left the driveway.
The state law requires that the vehicle be driven in an area accessible to other motor vehicles:
“A person, whether licensed or not, shall not operate a vehicle upon a highway or other place open to the general public or generally accessible to motor vehicles, including an area designated for the parking of vehicles, within this state if the person is operating while intoxicated.”
One could argue that a driveway is “generally accessible” but two judges saw a distinction in affirming the lower court decision by the Oakland County Circuit Court. Appeals Court Judges Elizabeth Gleicher and Douglas Shapiro found that the driveway was only accessible to members of a household and was not within the intent of the legislature. The key was the word “generally.”
“Had the legislature wanted to criminalize driving while intoxicated in one’s own driveway, it could have outlawed the operation of a motor vehicle in any place ‘accessible to motor vehicles,’ omitting the adverb ‘generally,'” the court ruled. ” … The commonly understood and dictionary-driven meanings of the term ‘generally’ in this context compel the conclusion that the legislature meant to limit the reach.”
Judge Kathleen Jansen went perfectly medieval in response in her dissent. After noting that the question of whether the driveway is generally accessible to motor vehicles is a question of fact for the trial court, she added:
“I disagree with the majority’s conclusion that the area of defendant’s driveway on which he operated his vehicle was akin to a moat that strangers were forbidden to cross because it is unclear whether other vehicles were routinely permitted or forbidden to access the portion of defendant’s driveway on which he operated his vehicle.”
Both sides have solid arguments in this opinion, in my view. I think the opinion comes down to a certain presumption against extending the criminal law absent stronger evidence of legislative intent to apply these laws to driving on your own property. That would seem a major extension of the law that would generate considerable controversy. Courts will often defer to the legislature on such questions while retaining a narrow construction absent a change.
What do you think?
The case is People v. Rea, 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 777 (Mich. App. Ct. 2016