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When ATVs are Driven on Public Highways, They Are “Motor Vehicles” for Purposes of State Suspension Laws

In a recent criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut affirmed a trial court’s revocation of a defendant’s probation after he operated his all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on public roads while his driver’s license was suspended.

In this case, the defendant pled guilty to driving under the influence as a third-time offender. He was sentenced to three years’ incarceration, execution suspended after one year, with three years’ probation. The following conditions of probation were imposed: a general condition prohibiting the violation of any state criminal statute, and a special condition prohibiting the operation of a motor vehicle with a suspended license. The Department of Motor Vehicles permanently suspended the defendant’s driver’s license due to his history of suspensions. The defendant served the one unsuspended year in jail, then began his probation. Before the term expired, he received two criminal citations after he operated an ATV in the travel lanes of town roads. Therefore, he was subsequently charged with operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license in violation of CGS § 14-215, as well as violation of probation.

A probation revocation hearing was held, where the trial court determined that the defendant violated the general and special conditions. His probation was revoked, and he was ordered to serve the remaining two years of his suspended sentence. The defendant appealed, arguing that CGS § 14-215(c) was unconstitutionally vague with respect to application to ATV usage. As he emphasized, “a person of ordinary intelligence could not reasonably have been expected to know that the term ‘motor vehicle’ included an ATV.”

Everyone is presumed to know the law, and ignorance is no excuse from criminal punishment. However, laws must be drafted so that “ordinary people understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” So long as the meaning of the statute can be fairly ascertained, it won’t be struck down as void for vagueness. In this case, the burden rested with the defendant to “demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that [CGS § 14-215(c)], as applied to him, deprived him of adequate notice of what conduct the statute proscribed or that he fell victim to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

CGS § 14-215(c) makes it a crime for a person to operate a motor vehicle while their driver’s license is under suspension. This statute is located in Chapter 248, which defines “motor vehicle” as including “all vehicles used on public highways.” In CGS § 14-212(9), “vehicle” is synonymous with “motor vehicle,” so the Supreme Court opined that if an ATV qualifies as a vehicle, it is a motor vehicle for purposes of the suspension law. The Court considered the definitions of ATV under other statutes, which use the language “a self-propelled vehicle” and “motorized vehicle.” CGS §§ 14-379 and 23-26a. Thus, for purposes of CGS § 14-215(c), an ATV was a motor vehicle when used on a public highway.

With this statutory framework in mind, the Supreme Court determined that the defendant failed to meet his burden. Rather, CGS § 14-215(c) “affords a person of ordinary intelligence with fair warning that he is prohibited from operating an ATV on a public highway while his license is suspended.” The Court found that the statute was not unconstitutionally vague, and the trial court did not err in revoking the defendant’s probation.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or operation under suspension, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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