Hello, and welcome to Legal Lad's Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life.
But first, a disclaimer: Although I am an attorney, the legal information in this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Further, I do not intend to create an attorney-client relationship with any listener.
This past week, I received a legal question whose answer, not only did I not know, I probably should as an avid (if slightly incompetent) cyclist. Tyler from Michigan wrote:
I've heard that I can be cited for DUI and lose my driver's license if I'm stopped by a police officer while riding a bicycle on a public street. Is this true?
Well, Tyler, it is generally not a good idea to operate any kind of mechanical transportation, motorized or not, while under the influence of alcohol. But, the short answer is that most states consider bikes and motorized vehicles differently for the purposes of DUI statutes.
Statutes prohibiting the drunken operation of vehicles or motor vehicles have long existed throughout the country. At the same time, persons riding bicycles are generally held to be governed by the same rules as persons riding or driving any other type of vehicle. The combination of these two facts has on occasion forced the courts to consider whether a person operating a bicycle while under the influence of alcohol may be charged under a drunk-driving statute.
Most drunk-driving statutes proscribe the operation of a "vehicle," so the starting point for a court reviewing a DUI conviction is the definition of the word "vehicle." Courts in Ohio, Florida, Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado have interpreted "vehicle" to include both vehicles that are motorized and vehicles that are powered by humans.
So, the courts affirmed the convictions of driving under the influence on the basis of operating a bicycle in those states. However, most states do not apply the penalties related to a driver's license for a conviction based on operating a bicycle. Only the court in Hawaii upheld the 90-day suspension of the defendant's driver's license.
The court noted that it was not necessary to obtain a driver's license in order to ride a bicycle, and that suspending his driver's license would not stop him from legally riding his bicycle. But, the court reasoned that the deterrent of suspending someone's driver's license would affect bike riders too, and upheld the conviction.
By contrast, courts in California and Illinois held that the DUI statutes did not apply to bicycles. The DUI statute only proscribed the operation of a "vehicle" under the influence, and the statutory definition of "vehicle" expressly exempted bicycles and other modes of transportation powered by humans.
However, both states, and most states, have separate statutes that prohibit riding a bicycle while intoxicated. Violating these bicycle-specific statutes carries a much lighter sentence, but is still illegal.
Last, there seems to be a split of authority in New Jersey on the issue. One appellate court decided that a drunk bike rider could be convicted under a DUI statute, while another court held the opposite. However, both courts agreed that the defendant's driver's license could not be revoked for operating a bicycle while drunk.
So, the quick and dirty tip is to enjoy alcohol responsibly. If you are intoxicated, do not drive, do not ride your bike, do not pass "Go" or collect $200. Walk home, hail a cab, or get a friend to pick you up.
Michael Flynn writes and records the
Legal Lad articles and pocdasts. A graduate of Tufts University and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, he currently works as a research attorney for a California trial court.
Disclaimer: Please note that the legal information featured in Legal Lad articles and podcasts is presented for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Further, Michael Flynn's name is only being provided for authorship purposes, and not to advertise any legal services. To request a topic or share a tip, send an email to email@example.com or call 206-202-4LAW.