“DWI for walking a bicycle”

by Walter Olson on May 23, 2009

[See important P.S./correction at end] No, this isn’t new, it’s a year old in fact, but I must have somehow overlooked Radley Balko’s account of it: Jeff Brown of Columbus, Ohio, was arrested and convicted for operating a vehicle under the influence after walking a bicycle across his own front lawn*, then refusing a breathalyzer test from a cop who said the bicycle was missing a required headlight and that Brown seemed impaired. Things could be worse, though: a Florida woman won dismissal of 2005 charges of operating her own wheelchair while intoxicated.

*Important P.S.: I should have caught this earlier (via Balko’s “Hit and Run” followup, h/t reader Nicolas Martin in comments) but the appellate court accepted a version of the facts that differs from Brown’s on key points [emphasis added]:

The record contains scant details of the underlying facts of this case, but it appears appellant was riding a bicycle on a sidewalk on December 18, 2004, when he was detained by a police officer.

Absent some indication that the appeals court erred, Brown’s doesn’t look like the case to cite in illustrating the farthest reaches of impaired-bicycle legislation.

{ 9 comments }

1 nevinscrna 05.23.09 at 2:04 pm

MADD gone mad. (yes, I know they were not involved in these events directly, but the mass hysteria they’ve generated is clearly reflected herein)
If you start arresting people for NOT driving a real car, motorcycle or other licensed vehicle (the pretty clear intent of DWI laws), then we are going to move them from wheelchairs, bicycles, mobility scooters, and other mostly benign ‘vehicles’ into autos. Some day if there is a plague of tens of thousands of alcohol related scooter, horse, and bicycle related deaths, then laws to address these can be crafted wisely. But creative prosecutors should try to stick with the laws they have and not morph them into the laws they wish they had.

2 John Burgess 05.23.09 at 5:46 pm

My part of Florida has a lot of (mostly) young men in their 20s-30s riding around on bikes. They’re not fitness-freaks. They’re DWI offenders who had their licenses pulled.

If they start getting pulled over in great number for BWI, they’re just going to say, ‘The hell with it!’ and get back behind the wheel. If they hit me while biking drunk, they may ding my car, but they’re not going to kill me.

They represent a greater hazard to themselves than others (I’m assuming that drunk biking through lines of school children is not an everyday occurrence here). It’s sort of like the lack of a law requiring cyclists of any sort to wear helmets.

3 Bill Poser 05.23.09 at 8:44 pm

Every DUI statute that I have ever seen refers to operating the vehicle on a public road. In most places, you are perfectly free to careen around your own property drunk. Is that not the case in Ohio?

4 Walter Olson 05.23.09 at 9:22 pm

Per the Lawrence Taylor DUIBlog post that Balko links, the Ohio legislature in 2004 extended the statute’s reach from public roads to private property, even as it was extending its reach from motorized vehicles to bicycles and other light means of transport.

5 Bumper 05.23.09 at 10:02 pm

I sense a dual problem here. Police officers who are unable to control their temper and/or have incredibly bad judgment, combined with legislators (who are predominately attorneys) who write incredibly vague and obtuse laws that are almost guaranteed to be misinterpreted.

6 Nicolas Martin 05.24.09 at 8:14 am

The appellate court decision, to which Balko links, says:

“The record contains scant details of the underlying facts of this case, but it appears appellant was riding a bicycle on a sidewalk on December 18, 2004, when he was detained by a police officer.”

So, was this man arguably not walking across his own front lawn?

That is not to say that I think he should have been cited.

7 Walter Olson 05.24.09 at 11:22 am

Thanks, Nicolas, for that very important catch. I’ve corrected/updated the text. The objections in principle remain to the breadth of the Ohio law, but unless the appeals court erred, we should not assume that the law has yet actually yet been enforced to its full breadth.

8 Amy Alkon 05.24.09 at 12:17 pm

I was going to blog this via your Twitter link (loving your Tweets, Walter) until I read the appellate correction on the bottom over at reason. It’s weird that there’s no story readily Google-able about this. I was hoping to find some reporting on it to verify or debunk. You can do damage — and even kill somebody — while riding a bicycle drunk (or unimpaired). I saw it myself a number of times when I lived in New York City. Which isn’t to say I’m for Ohio’s overreaching laws.

9 BG 05.24.09 at 9:07 pm

In our part of Ohio it is illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalk, they need to share the streets (and follow the same rules but they usually run the stop signs anyway). Usually a blind eye is cast toward kids on the sidewalk issue and for anyone on particularly busy roads.

Our city council just last year passed ordinances for bicycling at night (certain kinds of lights & reflectors, etc. are required). I believe the ‘bicycles off the sidewalk’ ordinance is by city and not state-wide but seem to have been a factor in stopping him.

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