Month: November 2013

When we speak of a DUI, it is typically assumed that the vehicle involved is a car or truck. Believe it or not, in the District of Columbia, it is possible to be charged with DUI while riding a bicycle. An actual bike. With pedals.

In 2010, the D.C. Court of Appeals faced this issue in Everton v. District of Columbia. The Court had to decide whether a bicycle constitutes a “vehicle” under the D.C.’s DUI statute. The Court found that a bicycle is covered under the District’s definition of a “vehicle,” which at the time was “any appliance moved over a highway on wheels or traction treads, including street cars, draft animals, and beasts of burden.” D.C. Code §§ 50–2201.02(9).

In August, 2012, the DC Council passed the Comprehensive Impaired Driving and Alcohol Testing Program Emergency Amendment Act of 2012 (“The Act”). The Act contained the same definition of a “vehicle.” But the act also defined a “motor vehicle” as “all vehicles propelled by internal combustion engines, electricity, or steam.” The distinction of a “vehicle” and a “motor vehicle” is very important for citizens who are charged with DUI-bicycle.

The Act, like most DUI laws in the country, contains what is called an “Implied Consent” (IC) component of the law. The IC component states that if a police officer has reasonable grounds to believe that a person was operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated or impaired by alcohol, then that person shall be deemed to have consented to submitting two specimens of blood, breath or urine for chemical testing. If the person refuses to submit the specimens, then there are potential negative effects of the refusal such as a suspension of driving privileges in the District and the use of that refusal against the person at trial.

According to the Act, the IC component only pertains to motor vehicles. It does not apply to “vehicles,” such as bicycles. This means that a person arrested for DUI-bicycle is NOT required in any way to submit to chemical testing. It also means that the person’s refusal to submit to any chemical testing cannot be used against the person in any negative way.

If the government chooses to prosecute a DUI-bicycle…or any other vehicle defined by the Act…the evidence is limited to the officer’s observations of the defendant while riding the bike, any statements by the defendant, and the defendant’s performance on field sobriety tests. The Act does not permit chemical testing for a DUI-vehicle. Those citizens charged with these types of offenses should take these cases to trial every time because of the limited evidence available to the government.

The Everton case was an unfortunate example of judicial overreach where a unique set of facts resulted in a bad legal precedent. The severe penalties and consequences of the Act are based partly on the risks of driving a 4,000 pound machine propelled by explosive chemical reactions at potentially high speeds while allegedly under the influence.

Although the risks of driving a bike while under the influence should not be understated, they do not approach the seriousness of the danger created by an out-of-control automobile. Also, this ruling may have problematic unintended consequences: if people are discouraged from bike-riding after a couple of drinks, they are more likely to choose a more convenient, but far more dangerous option—driving a car.

By the way, it should be noted that driving a mule cart around DC while drunk is prohibited by the Act’s definition of “vehicle” as well. Watch out, civil war re-enactors.

If you have been charged with a drunk-driving offense in D.C. for the first time, do not make a bad situation worse by blindly pleading guilty. This advice applies even if pleading guilty seems like the honorable decision. You might reason that

You might reason that usually, when you make a poor decision, you own up to it, take responsibility, and change your behavior. This impulse might be reinforced when well-intentioned friends and family urge you to plead guilty and hope for mercy. After all, you won’t have to face the stress and uncertainty of a trial, and you can hold out hope that maybe the judge will go easy on you if you’re sincerely repentant and promise to change.

The problem with this approach is that ignores the reality of DUI prosecutions in the District of Columbia. Specifically, if you plead guilty, you aren’t really throwing yourself on the mercy of the court—the terms of the plea bargain will be set by the Office of the Attorney General. The OAG does not give any credit for a guilty plea. If you plead guilty, you will face probation, mandatory alcohol counseling, and community service. If you don’t plead guilty but are convicted anyway, you will still face probation, mandatory alcohol counseling, and community service. Not a great deal.
It is especially problematic to enter a guilty plea when you have no way of evaluating the state’s case against you. If you don’t know:

-whether the police had a constitutional basis to detain you in the first place, -whether they administered the roadside field sobriety tests properly,
-whether they recorded the results of the field tests,
-whether they actually took the time to record their observations of your behavior and appearance
-whether they properly obtained your consent for chemical testing,
-whether they administered the chemical tests in compliance with Constitutional precedent and D.C. law
-whether any evidence proffered by the prosecution can be excluded
-whether any testimony offered by the police can be undermined
-whether there are any witnesses to establish your side of the story then it would be extremely ill-advised to make a decision before speaking to an experienced DUI attorney.

It’s true that there may be situations where the case against you is strong enough that accepting a guilty plea is the right decision. But you won’t know that unless an experienced DUI attorney has evaluated the facts of your case.

Finally, you should reject any suggestion that that there’s something dishonorable about asserting your right to a fair trial. When you assert your right to be free from unreasonable searches, and to have a fair trial, you are participating in a process that the Framers protected in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, specifically to safeguard against government overreach. There is nothing wrong in making the government prove the charges it has brought against you.

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