Virginians who want to crack open a beer or two while doing yardwork on a riding lawnmower came close to getting a green light from the General Assembly.
But drinking and getting behind the wheel in your own yard or driveway could still mean big legal trouble after a House of Delegates subcommittee voted down legislation to put private homes beyond the reach of the state’s drunken-driving laws.
The Senate passed the bill 37-3 last month, but lawmakers in the House blocked it Friday after deciding it was too difficult to draw a distinction between the guy calmly drinking beer while listening to the radio in a parked car and the guy doing doughnuts on his front lawn.
A House Courts of Justice subcommittee voted 7-0 Friday to kill Senate Bill 308.
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the bill raised an interesting issue, but it was aimed at a problem that may not be solvable.
“Sitting in your driveway with your car running could mean you just got there,” Gilbert said.
State law makes it a crime to “drive or operate” a vehicle while drunk, a definition that allows people to be prosecuted, whether the car is moving or stopped.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, said he was trying to create a “narrow protection” to ensure DUI laws aren’t ensnaring people “trying to do the right thing” by not driving drunk on a public street.
“You know, this is a tough nut,” Stuart told the subcommittee last week. “I’m trying to protect the person who moves the car in his driveway.”
Stuart said he received an email from a Charlottesville man who wisely got a ride home from a bar but was prosecuted for DUI for moving a car in a private driveway.
“We are catching people up that we never intended,” Stuart said. “We do value property rights in this state and this country.”
The bill drew opposition from anti-drunken-driving groups, law enforcement associations, AAA and insurance companies.
Gilbert asked Stuart if he thought it was OK for him to drive a four-wheeler around his property at 70 mph while drinking a beer with a child on board.
Stuart said the bill wouldn’t let people fly around drunk on farms, because the exemption applies only to a residential property’s “curtilage,” or the area immediately surrounding a house.
“I would defy you to go 70 miles per hour in the curtilage of your yard,” Stuart said.
Other lawmakers noted that it takes effort to get above 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration, the intoxication level at which it becomes illegal to drive. Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, a prosecutor for the city of Suffolk, said he once underwent a DUI training exercise and was “very drunk” by the time he hit the legal limit.
“This is not just sitting on a lawnmower enjoying a Heineken while you’re driving around,” Mullin said, suggesting that reaching the legal limit would require the equivalent of seven beers over two hours.
“Even driving your lawnmower drunk can endanger little kids,” Gilbert said.
Stuart said that under state law, blood alcohol content is a “rebuttable presumption” that means questions of intoxication are often resolved in court instead of at the time of the arrest. If a police officer saw someone moving a car in a driveway with a glass of wine in hand, Stuart said, that person could very well register above the limit if they’d had a glass or two beforehand.
The subcommittee heard Stuart’s bill Wednesday and delayed a vote to give the issue more time. Stuart was not present when the bill came back up Friday afternoon and was voted down