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Pennsylvania Appellate Court Holds DUI’s Can Occur on Private Roadways

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently reversed the lower court’s dismissal of charges against a defendant charged with a DUI on an allegedly private roadway.

In August 2014, Alison Lees was charged with DUI, reckless driving, and careless driving after driving intoxicated from her parking spot and onto a grassy area. The trial court held a pretrial hearing in July 2015. What follows is a description of the evidence presented.

Tiffany Mowrer testified that on August 15 at around three in the afternoon, she heard a loud bang and saw Lees emerge from a car, which had just hit an electrical box in a grassy area next to the parking lot of Montgomery Village. Mowrer’s cousin Tony testified that he, too, saw Lees strike the electrical box. Tony testified that mailmen and deliverymen regularly cross the parking lot, but that a sign at its entrance reads “Private Property.” Tiffany and Tony both testified that Mowrer had been parked in a spot on a portable concrete curb, then proceeded over the curb and into the grass. There was no evidence that Lees was in physical control of a vehicle in the parking lot generally.

Officer Matthew Gerst testified that the curb in front of Lees’ vehicle was marked with an “11,” and that Lees’ address in Montgomery Village is “11.” The officer testified that he assumed that the space was Lees’ parking space.

It was stipulated that Lees’ blood alcohol content was at .189% at 4:47pm on August 15. The parties also agreed that Lees did not operate her car anywhere except her parking space and the grassy area. Finally, it was  stipulated that the grassy area between the curb and the green electrical box is not a highway or trafficway.

In August 2015, the court granted Lees’ habeas corpus relief and dismissed all charges against her. The commonwealth appealed, raising a single error for review: Whether a parking space, which is clearly contained within the property lines or boundary lines of a common area parking lot, is a highway or a trafficway of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania?

The commonwealth argued generally that a parking lot is a “trafficway” for purposes of the DUI statute, and that it established a prima facie case that the parking space Lees drove in was part of a trafficway as defined by Pennsylvania law. It further argued that even if the trial court correctly distinguished parking lots from assigned spaces, the evidence presented did not prove that Lees had any claim of title to the specific parking space. The appeals court agreed with the commonwealth’s conclusion that the trial court erred in dismissing the charges against Lees.

The court reasoned that the term “operate”, as used in the DUI statute, “requires evidence of actual physical control of either the machinery of the motor vehicle or the management of the vehicle’s movement, but not evidence that the vehicle was in motion.” Moreover, Pennsylvania courts have recognized that roadways in private areas, or areas restricted to permit-holders, can still meet the “public use” requirement for purposes of the DUI statute.

In Lees’ case, the DUI occurred within the parking lot serving two housing complexes. The parking lot is marked with a sign stating “Private Property,” but non-residents frequently cross the lot. The commonwealth’s burden at this stage of the prosecution was to demonstrate evidence of each element of the charges, not prove the offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. The stipulations, the appeals court reasoned, confirmed that Lees drove her vehicle while intoxicated onto an adjacent grassy area where she struck a green electrical box. The evidence showed that members of the public routinely used the Montgomery Village parking lot, satisfying the public use requirement of a trafficway under the DUI statute.

Lees’ argument for habeas corpus relief at the hearing rested on a distinction between the parking lot generally and a private parking space. The commonwealth, however, demonstrated that Lees’ alleged ownership of the parking space was unclear. Viewed in the light most favorable to the commonwealth, the evidence established a prima facie case. Thus, the appeals court held that the the trial court improperly dismissed the charges against Lee. It therefore reversed the lower court’s order dismissing all charges and remanded for further proceedings.

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More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Driver’s Arrest Was Supported By Probable Cause, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, March 15, 2016.

Arrested For My First DUI, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, February 12, 2016.