Freaky Friday Halloween Decision by the Virginia Supreme Court. The public is mystified by what it considers a new legal absurdity – Listening to your car radio in a private driveway while drinking is illegal and may result in a DUI conviction! Sarafin v. Commonwealth, October 31, 2014.
The odd conclusion in this DUI case is the result of the court’s deference to the General Assembly. Rather than concluding that the General Assembly occasionally does a poor job drafting legislation, the court does its best to interpret the statute which from time to time results in legal absurdities. The court bases its decision on rules of statutory construction. The court states “[W]hen the General Assembly has used specific language in one instance, but omits that language or uses different language when addressing a similar subject elsewhere in the Code, we must presume that the difference in the choice of language was intentional.” This might have been a time where the presumption should have been rebutted.
The court declined to read § 18.2-266 (the DUI statute) to require that an operator of a motor vehicle be “on a highway” refusing to apply the legislative definition of “operator” under § 46.2-100 that defines “operator” as “every person who either (1) drives or is in actual physical control of a motor vehicle on a highway or (ii) is exercising control over or steering a vehicle being towed by a motor vehicle.”
The reason for rejecting this definition is that to do so would result in a separate absurdity. § 18.2-266 reads in part, “It shall be unlawful for any person to drive or operate any motor vehicle, engine or train (i) while such person has a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or more by weight by volume…” The court points out that trains do not operate on public highways but on privately owned tracks and therefore reading in the “on a highway” language would make the trains provision meaningless. (Unless of course the statute only restricts drunk train operating when the track intersects with public highways).
Secondly, in 1994, the General Assembly amended § 18.2-266, prohibiting the operation of “mopeds, … on the public highways of this Commonwealth” while the operator is intoxicated, and therefore since § 18.2-266 when referring to an automobile, it does not state “on the public highways of this Commonwealth” for operating “ it must have meant to differentiate the two.
The decision was split 4-3, with a very vocal dissent. Justice Mims dissenting stated that the court had previously recognized the nexus or connection between § 46.2-100 and § 18.2-266 in Enriquez v. Commonwealth in 2012 when the court stated that “when an intoxicated person is seated behind the steering wheel of a motor vehicle on a public highway and the key is in the ignition switch, he is in actual physical control of the vehicle and, therefore, is guilty of operating the vehicle while under the influence of alcohol within the meaning of Code § 18.2-266.” Without [the element of ‘on a public highway’], the Court has taken the final step toward construing Code § 18.2-266 to punish a person for merely occupying, rather than operating, a motor vehicle.” Justice McClanahan, joined by Chief Justice Kinser also dissented, stating that the “on a highway” element has been the Court’s interpretation as far back as 1964, for similar reasons as Justice Mims.
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