Practically everyone is aware that drinking and driving on public roads can land you in jail with a drunk driving charge. Many also believe that if you’re on private property doing the same thing, you’re in the clear. However this is a common misconception and will land you in trouble just as if you were doing it on public roadways.
Per Section 257.625 of the Michigan Vehicle Code, it is against the law to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated in any place or area that is open to the public or accessible to other vehicles. This means that just because the vehicle was being operated on private property does not mean that the police are prohibited from stopping, investigating and arresting an individual for drunk driving.
Private Property vs. Publicly Accessible Areas and Roadways
The overwhelming majority of roadways are publicly owned, which means that the government owns them and is tasked with the responsibility for their construction, repair and maintenance. Driveways and corridors that lead to homes and commercial properties generally speaking are privately owned. Essentially when you leave a roadway and drive onto your own or someone else’s driveway or even a parking lot of a business, you are actually driving on private property.
Many individuals believe they’re in the clear once they’re on private property. However they are in for a rude awakening if caught, since any area open and accessible to other vehicles or the general public is fair game for a drunk driving traffic stop. What is defined as open to the public can be broadly construed, which can create confusion for citizens and allows law enforcement to bend the rules in their favor. There are often seemingly insignificant details that can be the difference between being charged with a misdemeanor drunk driving offense and being in the clear.
Usually these cases will hinge around the accessibility of the area. This is usually subjective, and can be interpreted differently by different police officers, prosecutors, judges and even jurys. A common example is an individual being stopped by police while in their private driveway. If there was no gate or barrier preventing easy accessibility by the public, this individual would be facing DUI charges if they were intoxicated. However, if there was a closed gate, fence or other impediment to public access, then it could be argued that a DUI charge would not be appropriate since it was no longer accessible to other vehicles.
This gets more blurry when larger plots of property are involved, such as rural land, a backyard or even a baseball field. A skilled drunk driving attorney will be able to show these facts to a judge, asking for a motion to dismiss the case. If this is unsuccessful, the attorney can then argue the case in court and rely on a jury to make the determination. In the event the defendant was in fact convicted of DUI on private property, the last resort would be an appeals process which only is applicable in situations where the basis of the appeal is a mistake of fact, not an undesired jury verdict.
Defending Against a DUI charge on Private Property
In cases involving an OWI or DUI charge on private property, the fact that it occurred on private property is insignificant in the outcome of the case. What is critical is that the prosecutor will be tasked with proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the area in which the offense occurred was open and accessible to the public. This grey area is where a DUI lawyer can create enough doubt to be able to sway a jury into clearing the defendant, or having a case thrown out entirely, saving time and legal costs for the defendant. If the state cannot clearly prove their case, the defendant should be in the clear.