In Michigan, the risk of being ticketed for drunk driving does not end when you pull up in your driveway. In fact, it doesn’t end even if you haven’t pulled out of your driveway. Contrary to what some might think, drunk driving in Michigan doesn’t even require the use of a publicly available road. No sir.
The Michigan Supreme Court reversed two lower court rulings that a man couldn’t be prosecuted for driving drunk in his own driveway. The Michigan Supreme Court says a driveway is no refuge for a drunken driver. The state Supreme Court has expanded the definition of “driving” to include moving to operate your vehicle in your own private driveway.
Gino Rea of Northville, Michigan was arrested in 2014 after police went to his home in response to a neighbor’s complaints about loud music. According to court documents, while there, the arresting officer watched Rea back his vehicle out of, and then back into his garage, bumping into some loose items inside the garage in the process. Police said he smelled of alcohol and his speech was slurred.
Rea refused a field sobriety test and was taken into custody. At that point, he probably should have spent more time reading DUIwise.com. He didn’t, and when his blood alcohol level came in at three times the legal limit, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol without ever leaving his driveway.
He was clearly drunk. But was he guilty of drunk driving? In court, police acknowledged that the car never traveled beyond the front of the house.
Michigan’s law against drunken driving states: “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.”
During his original trial, an Oakland County Circuit judge dismissed the case, troubled by prosecutor’s assertion that a private driveway was “open to the general public.” The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal in 2016, reiterating the lower court’s ruling that Rea “was not operating his vehicle in an area generally accessible to motor vehicles.”
In a 5-2 ruling, the state Supreme Court, however, disagreed with the lower courts’ definition of “generally accessible.” In issuing its ruling, the court said a driveway is “generally accessible to motor vehicles” under state law, even if it’s on private property.
Writing for the majority Justice Richard Bernstein said, “In light of the dictionary definitions of these words, ‘generally accessible’ means usually or ordinarily capable of being reached,” He noted that the phrase “generally assessable” did not mean the same thing as open to the general public. It pertains only to who may have access to the driveway. Absent something on the defendant’s driveway that would have prevented motor vehicles on the public street from turning into it, the driveway was, in effect “generally accessible to motor vehicles.”
There are many who believe the Oakland Circuit and state Appeals courts, rightly concerned about a violation of civil, property rights, balked when hearing their private property was generally available to the public.
In dissent, justices Bridget McCormack and David Viviano said the court should be “hesitant to assume” that lawmakers wanted to extend their reach to the private property of homeowners.
“Private property rights are, of course, central to our legal system—every person has ‘exclusive dominion over his own soil,’” McCormick wrote. “If a private citizen chooses to have a few beers while washing his car (or to wash his car while having a few beers), on a patch of his own land covered by a driveway, that is his right.”
Michigan Supreme Court Justices are nominated to run by political parties. The composition of the current court is four justices who were nominated by the Republicans and three who were nominated by the Democrats. As a rule, it tends to lean right in its rulings. This decision came as a surprise to many on the right who advocate for personal property rights.
Nolan Finley of the Detroit News opined most of us think our driveways are private property, and not accessible to the public, at least not unless they’re trespassing. But the Supreme Court majority disagreed, and in doing so “did a bit of trampling on the state’s respect for private property.”
In Michigan, if you’ve had one too many beers while washing your car in your driveway, and you get behind the wheel of your car to drive into your garage, you might find yourself under arrest. Finley says “this is yet one more intrusion into space the constitution carves out for individuals to stand free of government meddling, and another example of the law being twisted to control rather than to protect.”
Perhaps DUIwise.com might have provided a different path had the defendant had it been contacted quickly after his arrest. It’s still not too late for Rea to get the expert advice he needs. The Supreme Court sent the case back to Oakland County for prosecution, where it is currently pending.