An Associated Press story from last week reports an interesting ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. In a published opinion, the appeals court reversed a district court decision convicting a disabled man of a third-degree DWI for being intoxicated while driving a battery-operated mobility scooter.
But before we jump into the reasons for the ruling, let’s first look at the facts of the case.
In July 26, 2009 a man named James Anthony Brown, Jr. was found driving his battery-operated, three-wheel Legend Pride Mobility Scooter on the sidewalks near a Grand Rapids car dealership. Authorities were contacted due to the suspicion that Brown was intoxicated at the time. A breath test revealed that Brown had an alcohol concentration level of 0.17, or more than twice the legal limit of .08 in the state of Minnesota. In addition, it was revealed that he had a prior 2001 DWI conviction. As a result, Brown was charged and eventually convicted of a third-degree DWI, which is a gross misdemeanor.
The district court conviction was appealed, thus the Court of Appeals ruling on the case. The defense argued that Brown, being a physically disabled individual, uses the motorized scooter as a means of mobility and substitute for walking, and that his operation of it does not constitute driving a “motor vehicle” as defined by the Minnesota Statutes:
§169A.03, subd. 15 (2010) – “Motor vehicle” means every vehicle that is self-propelled and every vehicle that is propelled by electric power obtained from overhead trolley wires. The term includes motorboats in operation and off-road recreational vehicles, but does not include a vehicle moved solely by human power.
In deciding on the issue, the Court of Appeals emphasizes that “(w)ords and phrases in Minnesota’s statutes are interpreted according to their common meaning.” At the same time, neither will the court presume that the legislature intends “a result that is absurd, impossible of execution, or unreasonable” as expressed in Minn. Stat. § 645.17(1) (2010).
Given these two guiding considerations, the appeals court then looked at whether Brown’s motorized mobility scooter is a “motor vehicle” as it is defined above, and decided that:
“It is plain that for purposes of traffic regulations contained in Chapter 169, Brown’s scooter is a wheelchair and is not a motor vehicle, and Brown, who uses the scooter as a substitute for walking, is, while operating his scooter, a pedestrian.”
We should add that Section 169.011, subd. 93 (2008) of the Minnesota Statutes defines “wheelchair” to include “any manual or motorized wheelchair, scooter, tricycle, or similar device used by a disabled person as a substitute for walking.”
Two key things here: Brown is using a wheelchair and this makes him a pedestrian, even if a drunk one. Therefore, he should not have been convicted for driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
This case is interesting in many ways, and should tell you a lot about how Minnesota DWI laws have a lot of nuances, or for those less charitably inclined – be unbelievably complicated.
In fact, another scooter DWI case we wrote about in 2009 saw the Court of Appeals affirm a district court’s order finding probable cause for a man charged with a second-degree Minnesota DWI and test refusal who was found lying in the middle of the road and with injuries consistent to a scooter accident. Both these cases involved a scooter, yet one was deemed a motor vehicle and the other was not.
Only time will tell how this case will affect future DWI cases involving non-traditional means of transportation. And with the summer now in full swing, we can probably expect a lot more of this in the coming weeks. As always, it is important to follow safe driving practices and avoid the inconvenience and huge expenses of a Minnesota DWI. But if you do find yourself facing a Minnesota DWI charge don’t hesitate to contact an experienced Minnesota DWI defense attorney to help you build up an effective defense.
Charged with a Minnesota DWI? Call Kans Law Firm, LLC at (952) 835-6314 for a free case assessment.