Is It Legal to Drive Drunk in Your Own Driveway? Yes, If You Live in Michigan.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Apr 26, 2016

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Guy drinking and drivingIs it a crime to drive drunk in your own driveway? Not in Michigan, according to a recent decision from that state’s court of appeals. The decision has no precedential value in any other states, but judges in states with similar laws might be persuaded by the court’s reasoning.

Facts of the Case

After drinking a considerable quantity of alcohol, Gino Rea decided to enjoy the sound system in his Cadillac sedan. The car was parked in Rea’s driveway. A neighbor complained to the police that the music was too loud. When the police arrived, Rea was sitting in the car with the door partially open. The police told him to turn down the music.

The neighbor made a second complaint. When the police responded, they heard no music and did not see the Cadillac.

The police returned after receiving a third complaint. They saw the door on Rea’s detached garage open, then watched Rea drive his car out of the garage and down the driveway. The car traveled about 25 feet but it did not pass the front of Rea’s house. Photographs show that Rea would have needed to drive a good distance more to reach the sidewalk or the street.

Rea stopped and drove his car back into the garage, perhaps after noticing the presence of police officers in his yard. After he exited from the car and began to walk toward his house, the police arrested him for operating while intoxicated.

Michigan Law

Rea’s lawyer filed a motion to dismiss the charge, arguing that driving drunk in one’s own driveway does not violate Michigan law. The relevant Michigan statute prohibits a driver from operating 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” if the driver is intoxicated.

The trial judge agreed with Rea that driving in the driver’s private driveway does not violate that statute. The State appealed, arguing that driveways are generally accessible to motor vehicles and are therefore covered by the state’s drunk driving law.

Court’s Analysis

Since “generally” modifies the phrase “accessible to motor vehicles,” the Michigan Court of Appeals decided that the statute does not apply to every place that a motor vehicle might enter, but only covers those places that are generally accessible to drivers. To discern the meaning of the phrase “generally accessible,” the court examined dictionary definitions of the words. The most common definitions of “generally” included terms such as “by most people,” “widely,” “popularly,” “in most cases,” and “usually.” Accessible means either “able to be reached or entered” or “easily approached or entered.”

The court decided that the portion of Rea’s driveway between the front of his home and his garage was not generally accessible to motor vehicles. Drivers are not “widely” or “usually” or “in most cases” permitted to “access” the portion of a private driveway that is distant from the street. While a driver might enter a stranger’s driveway for a car length to turn around, traveling farther down the driveway to a location that is next to the house is not something that most people would do. According to the court, that portion of a driveway is accessible to “a small subset of drivers” that include residents of the house and people who are invited to use the driveway.

The court likened the driveway to a moat that “strangers are forbidden to cross but [Rea] could wade at will.” The court rejected the State’s argument that since the driveway was not barricaded, anyone could access it, including delivery drivers. Whatever merit that argument might have regarding the portion of the driveway that is close to the street, a UPS driver would rarely have reason to drive halfway down a driveway and park next to a house. Even drivers delivering large items would not generally drive the length of a driveway without obtaining the owner’s permission to do so.

The court refused to read the words “generally accessible to motor vehicles” as meaning “physically able to be entered by motor vehicles.” It recognized that the State’s interpretation of the law would make all acts of intoxicated driving illegal, because any place an intoxicated driver operates a vehicle is necessarily accessible to that driver. The statute’s broader phrase “open to the general public,” coupled with “generally accessible to motor vehicles,” signaled an intent that the state’s drunk driving law would not apply to every place where a driver could possibly drive.

Had the legislature intended to set no limits, it would not have used “generally” as a limiting adverb. It would instead have written a law that prohibits drunk driving in any public or private place. Since that is not the language that the state legislature decided to use, the court concluded that Rea did not violate Michigan’s drunk driving law.

Implications for Drunk Driving Prosecutions

The Michigan Court of Appeals noted that the outcome may have been different if the facts had been different. If Rea had driven close to the street or crossed the sidewalk, if the driveway had been shared with his neighbors, or if the driveway had served an apartment building rather than a private residence, the case might have been decided differently.

Unless the Michigan Supreme Court reverses the decision, it will stand as precedent for future Michigan drunk driving prosecutions. Outside of Michigan, the decision has no binding effect. Whether judges in other states will regard the court’s reasoning as persuasive will likely depend upon the wording of the state’s drunk driving law.

Different states have written their impaired driving laws in different ways. Some state laws apply to intoxicated driving in private places, including an owner’s own property. Whether it makes sense to penalize private conduct that does not threaten to harm the public is a policy decision that state legislatures have answered in different ways.

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