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Appeals court takes the wheel on unique drunken driving case

A utility terrain vehicle is not a motor vehicle, at least when it pertains to drunken driving, according to a District 2 Court of Appeals opinion released Wednesday.

Shawn Hill, 40, of Bloomfield, was pulled over in February 2013 while driving his UTV on a public road, according to the opinion. He was charged with OWI and operating a motor vehicle with prohibited alcohol content.

He eventually pleaded no contest to third-offense OWI and the operating a motor vehicle charge was dropped.

Prior to that, though, his attorney, Timothy Swatek, argued the charges were not applicable to UTVs. Instead, Swatek said he argued Hill should be subject to the charge of intoxicated operation of a UTV.

Prosecutors, in turn, argued the vehicle Hill was driving cannot be considered a UTV, since it is steered by two toggle switches, not a steering wheel.

Walworth County Circuit Judge David Reddy agreed with prosecutors and convicted Hill of a third drunken-driving offense. But the appellate court disagreed, and reversed Hill’s conviction in an unpublished opinion authored by Judge Paul Reilly and released Wednesday.

According to the opinion, state law says that UTVs must have a steering wheel. However, Hill had his registered with the Department of Natural Resources as a UTV, steering wheel or not. In his opinion, Reilly called the state’s argument about the steering wheel “absurd,” especially in light of the DNR registration.

“The state cannot apply a statutory decision one way so as to collect a registration fee,” according to the opinion, “and then turn around and interpret the same definition another way as to increase the applicable penalties for a law violation.”

According to the opinion, prosecutors never said why police’s definition of a steering wheel “should override a determination” made by the DNR.

Swatek, a Lake Geneva-based attorney, said Wednesday he had not yet read the appeals opinion. However, he marveled at how far a misdemeanor case had gotten in the court system.

“There was nothing that dealt with this issue,” Swatek. “It’s very case-specific. I don’t even know why the darn thing went as far as it did.”

Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci said he knew the case could have gone either way, but at least now there’s “a nice written decision” on the matter. Both attorneys said there was very little case law regarding drunken driving outside of cars and motorcycles.

“There isn’t much to go on,” Necci said. “You’d think that would be something we’ve litigated.”

About Eric Heisig

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