Michigan Court Of Appeals Holds Disability Scooter Is A Vehicle For OWI

On May 19, 2015, the Michigan Court of Appeals held in a drunk driving case that operating a disability scooter on a public road qualifies as operating a "vehicle" under Michigan's operating while intoxicated (OWI) laws and the Michigan Motor Vehicle Code (MVC).

In People v Lyon, Docket No. 319242, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether a person may properly be prosecuted for OWI while riding a disability scooter - also known as an electric personal assistive mobility device - on a public road.

The Court first recited the facts of the case.

Defendant is disabled. In lieu of a wheelchair, defendant uses a slow-moving, electric four-wheeled scooter to get around. On the day in question, Traverse City police officers observed defendant travelling along the paved portion of the “curb lane” along Garfield Avenue on his scooter. Defendant was weaving into the traffic lane, causing a backup. When the officers effectuated a traffic stop, defendant was holding an open can of beer. Defendant failed field sobriety tests and admitted that he was intoxicated.

The Court's analysis of whether the trial court erred in dismissing the charges against Defendant because his disability scooter was not a "vehicle" followed.

The circuit court found that defendant’s scooter was “an electric personal assistive mobility device” as exempted from the definition of “motor vehicle.” MCL 257.13c defines an “electric personal assistive mobility device” as “a self-balancing nontandem 2-wheeled device, designed to transport only 1 person at a time . . . .” As noted by the prosecutor, such devices are generally called “Segways.” The circuit court clearly erred in characterizing defendant’s scooter under this definition. The scooter at issue in this case is a four-wheel device.

In the alternative, defendant contended that his scooter is a “low-speed vehicle,” subject to different rules of operation. MCL 257.25b defines “low-speed vehicle” as “a self-propelled motor vehicle” that fits within the definition and standards of 49 CFR 571.3 and 49 CFR 571.500. Pursuant to 49 CFR 571.3, a “low-speed vehicle” has four wheels and travels between 20 and 25 miles an hour. Defendant’s scooter does not fit this definition because its top speed is only four miles an hour. Defendant also attempted to qualify his scooter as a “moped,” which is defined by MCL 257.32b as “a 2- or 3-wheeled vehicle” with a motor 100cc or smaller that “cannot propel the vehicle at a speed greater than 30 miles per hour on a level surface” and does not require gear shifts. The number of wheels on defendant’s scooter again renders this definition inapplicable.

What defendant and the circuit court failed to appreciate is that even if defendant’s scooter qualified as an electric personal assistive mobility device, low-speed vehicle, or moped, his conduct would not be exempt from prosecution. An operator of such a device “upon a roadway[,] has all of the rights and is subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle” under the “traffic laws” chapter of the MVC. MCL 257.657. The charges brought against defendant fall within that chapter. Moreover, the definition of “vehicle,” the term actually used in MCL 257.624a and MCL 257.625, is much more inclusive than the definition of “motor vehicle,” including “every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway.”

Defendant’s scooter was a device upon which a person was transported upon a highway.
In People v Rogers, 438 Mich 602; 475 NW2d 717 (1991), the Supreme Court clarified that a person using a device that does not fit within the usual definition of a “motor vehicle” may be prosecuted for operating a “vehicle” under the influence of alcohol if the device is operated upon a highway. The defendant in Rogers operated his snowmobile on the shoulder of a highway while intoxicated. Id. at 605. The Court emphasized that statutes generally prohibited riders from operating a snowmobile on the highway. Id. at 606. Despite this proscription, the Court continued, a snowmobile is a motorized device that is capable of being used on the highway and therefore falls within the definition of a “vehicle” when it is so operated. Id. at 605-606. The defendant contended that he should have been charged under a statute prohibiting the operation of a snowmobile while intoxicated, an offense that carried a lesser penalty. Id. at 607. The Supreme Court disagreed: “The OUIL provision of the Vehicle Code proscribes operation of any vehicle upon a highway while intoxicated. In addition, because snowmobiles, albeit under limited circumstances, may be operated on highways, it can be said that the snowmobile act proscribes operating a snowmobile on a highway while intoxicated.” Id. at 607- 608 (citations omitted). Just as the MVC applied to the Rogers defendant’s snowmobile when used as a “vehicle” “upon a highway,” the MVC governed the current defendant’s conduct when he used his scooter as a vehicle upon a highway.

That defendant’s electric scooter substituted as a wheelchair also does not exempt defendant from prosecution. The MVC recognizes that disabled persons may be unable to walk, requiring reliance on a wheelchair “or other device.” MCL 257.19a(c)(ii). This definition of disabled persons, however, does not exempt those persons from operating vehicles within the confines of the law. Beyond requiring motorists to use extra caution when approaching a disabled person using an assistive device in a crosswalk, the MVC does not make special exceptions for the use of such assistive devices while proceeding along the travelled portion of the highway. See MCL 257.612. By placing his scooter in the roadway, defendant undertook the duties of a vehicle driver, which include refraining from driving while intoxicated or with an open container. Accordingly, the circuit court committed clear legal error and abused its discretion in dismissing the charges in this case.