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What is a Vehicle under North Carolina DWI Law?

Usually when we think of someone being charged with a DWI, we think of someone driving a car or truck while impaired.  However, the laws governing DWIs in North Carolina are much broader in their definition of a vehicle and include a bicycle, a lawnmower, and a stand-up motorized scooter, just to name a few.

To begin our analysis, we look at the DWI statute at G.S. 20-138.1.  Subsection (a) states that:

A person commits the offense of impaired driving if he drives any vehicle upon any highway, any street, or any public vehicular area within this State:

(1)     While under the influence of an impairing substance; or

(2)     After having consumed sufficient alcohol that he has, at any relevant time after the driving, an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more. The results of a chemical analysis shall be deemed sufficient evidence to prove a person's alcohol concentration; or

(3)     With any amount of a Schedule I controlled substance, as listed in G.S. 90-89, or its metabolites in his blood or urine.

So the question is, what qualifies as a “vehicle”?  For that answer we look to the definitions section of Chapter 20.  G.S. 20-4.01(49) defines a vehicle as

Every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, excepting devices moved by human power or used exclusively upon fixed rails or tracks; provided, that for the purposes of this Chapter bicycles shall be deemed vehicles and every rider of a bicycle upon a highway shall be subject to the provisions of this Chapter applicable to the driver of a vehicle except those which by their nature can have no application. This term shall not include a device which is designed for and intended to be used as a means of transportation for a person with a mobility impairment, or who uses the device for mobility enhancement, is suitable for use both inside and outside a building, including on sidewalks, and is limited by design to 15 miles per hour when the device is being operated by a person with a mobility impairment, or who uses the device for mobility enhancement. This term shall not include an electric personal assistive mobility device as defined in G.S. 20-4.01(7a).

The North Carolina courts have helped interpret the statutes and add to our understanding of the term “vehicle.”  Way back in 1959, the North Carolina Supreme Court held in State v. Green that a farm tractor qualified as a “vehicle” for purposes of finding the defendant guilty of DWI.  Although North Carolina statutes have been revised since 1959, there is no reason that a farm tractor would currently be excepted.

In 1985, the North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Dellinger upheld the defendant’s conviction for DWI while riding a horse.  After that case, in 1989, the legislature amended the DWI statute to exclude horses from the definition of the term “vehicle.”

The amendment made to G.S. 20-138.1(e) in 1989 also excluded bicycles and lawnmowers, but in 2006 the provision was revised again to remove bicycles and lawnmowers from the exception and limit the exception to only horses.  Currently, G.S. 20-138.1(e) states that

Notwithstanding the definition of "vehicle" pursuant to G.S. 20-4.01(49), for purposes of this section the word "vehicle" does not include a horse.

We can find another exception to the term “vehicle” in its definition itself.  G.S. 20-4.01(49) excludes a device

designed for and intended to be used as a means of transportation for a person with a mobility impairment, or who uses the device for mobility enhancement, is suitable for use both inside and outside a building, including on sidewalks, and is limited by design to 15 miles per hour when the device is being operated by a person with a mobility impairment, or who uses the device for mobility enhancement.

The most common example of this would be a motorized wheelchair, but note that the statute requires that to be excluded, this device must be used by “a person with a mobility impairment.”  So it seems possible that someone could still be guilty of DWI if they were using someone else’s motorized wheelchair while impaired.

Another exception found in the definition of “vehicle” is “an electric personal assistive mobility device as defined in G.S. 20-4.01(7a).”  G.S. 20-4.01(7a) defines an electric personal assistive mobility device as

A self-balancing nontandem two-wheeled device, designed to transport one person, with a propulsion system that limits the maximum speed of the device to 15 miles per hour or less.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals examined each of these last two exceptions in the 2005 case State v. Crow.  In that case, the defendant was convicted of DWI while riding a stand-up scooter with an electric motor.  The court described the scooter as “a skateboard with handlebars on the front. The scooters had two wheels, each approximately six to eight inches in diameter and arranged in tandem much like the wheels of a bicycle.”  A police officer observed the defendant traveling at about 10 miles per hour.

In Crow, the court held that this stand-up scooter was a “vehicle” for purposes of the DWI statute, and it did not qualify under either the “device for mobility enhancement” or an “electric personal assistive mobility device” exception.  The court did state that a Segway was an example of an “electric personal assistive mobility device.”

Under the North Carolina DWI statute, you don’t have to be driving a car or truck to be found guilty of a DWI.  If you have been arrested for DWI, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450.

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