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Drunk Driving a Motorized Wheelchair?

Drunk Driving a Motorized Wheelchair?

Sometimes the law is interesting, even YouTube interesting. Back in 2007, the internet marveled at a very drunk southern gentleman – Steve – being arrested for DUII on a riding lawnmower. Spoiler alert: Steve goes down, spitting out some fantastic one-liners and getting pepper-sprayed along the way. Video here. One year later, Steve did it again, this time getting hit with the taser during his arrest. Second video here.

Undeterred, Steve kept going. The YouTube archives contain police videos of Steve apparently getting arrested for DUII on a lawnmower pulling 10 shopping carts; for DUII on a scissor lift; for DUII and stealing a police car; for DUII on a tractor pulling a sofa loaded with kegs; and for DUII on a powered wheelchair. Steve’s escapades are entertaining for all the wrong reasons, and makes me wonder whether he pulls these stunts intentionally. Either way, these stunts raise some interesting legal issues.

The Oregon Court of Appeals recently addressed one of those interesting legal issues: can a powered wheelchair be a “vehicle” under Oregon’s DUII laws? In State v. Greene, Mr. Greene was alleged to have operated his motorized wheelchair while intoxicated. While crossing the street via a crosswalk, Mr. Greene drove his motorized wheelchair into the side of a moving pickup truck. I suppose Steve would have been proud.

The State charged Mr. Greene with DUII, raising the interesting question of whether an intoxicated person operating a motorized wheelchair on the street – in a crosswalk – violates Oregon’s DUII laws. The Court thoughtfully analyzed the text and history of the relevant statutes, and concluded that Mr. Greene was actually a “pedestrian” rather than a “vehicle” while operating his motorized wheelchair in a crosswalk.

Interestingly, the Court’s analysis reaches other conclusions as well. For instance, although the Mr. Greene on his motorized wheelchair was a pedestrian in this situation, he likely would have been a vehicle if he was in the street, and likely would have been a bicycle if in the bike lane.

Also interesting was what was missing from the analysis: whether the Supreme Court’s ruling applies only to those using a powered wheelchair because they NEED to use a powered wheelchair. Although not stated in the Court’s opinion, I strongly suspect Mr. Greene’s use of the wheelchair was necessary. Within the analysis, the only connection to necessity is the legal definition of “pedestrian,” which includes refers to those “confined” to a wheelchair. The Supreme Court did not analyze whether interpretation of the word “confined” might affect the outcome.

Perhaps next time the Court of Appeals will address the issue of necessity, although it may be a very long time before a similar fact pattern arises in Oregon. Perhaps if Steve lived in Oregon, the issue could come up much sooner.

Daniel T. Goldstein

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