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No Drunk Driving in a Wheelchair? Oregon Man Scoots by DUI Charge

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on January 05, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Whether you'll get pinched for puttering around drunk in a wheelchair may depend on where you're operating and whether the court considers you a pedestrian. In Ohio, for example, you can absolutely get a DUI in a wheelchair. But in Oregon, you might be considered a pedestrian if you slam your motorized wheelchair into the side of a truck while crossing the street, and thus, no DUI.

Such was the case of one James Richard Greene of Lincoln County ...

When Is a Driver a Driver?

According to the court record, Greene "left a sidewalk in a motorized wheelchair and began crossing a street in a crosswalk," then "struck the side of a moving pickup truck," all while "impaired by alcohol and other drugs." He was charged under Oregon law of driving under the influence of intoxicants, but argued at his trial that a person merely crossing the street should be considered a pedestrian, and therefore not a "person who drives a vehicle."

The trial court rejected Greene's motion to dismiss, and he was convicted of DUII. He reiterated this argument on appeal, and found a more welcoming audience in the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Where Is a Vehicle a Vehicle?

"We are persuaded," wrote Presiding Judge Rex Armstrong for the unanimous court, "that the dichotomy that pervades the vehicle code between pedestrians and operators of vehicles decisively evinces a legislative intention not to subject people in motorized wheelchairs to the DUII statutes when they are traveling as pedestrians in crosswalks." In reviewing the legislative history and intent of the DUII statute, the court concluded:

[T]he legislature adopted ORS 814.500 to establish a narrow circumstance in which motorized wheelchairs are to be treated like bicycles, and thus by extension, vehicles--viz., when motorized wheelchairs are operated on bicycle lanes or paths. However, the legislature did not thereby intend for motorized wheelchairs to be uniformly treated as motor vehicles when operated on premises open to the public.

Therefore, "a person using a motorized wheelchair under circumstances in which the person is a
pedestrian for purposes of the vehicle code is not subject to the DUII statutes." And just like that, Greene was acquitted, and presumably rolled away a free man.

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