Does the New Jersey DWI Statute Apply to Bicycles?

bicycle on bridgeOn multiple occasions, prosecutors in this state have charged people with driving while intoxicated (DWI) for operating a bicycle while allegedly under the influence. This raises an interesting question about the scope of DWI law. Courts have reached different conclusions about whether operating a non-motorized bicycle—meaning one that is solely powered by a person’s own effort—constitutes DWI under New Jersey law. The Appellate Division does not appear to have ruled on the question directly, but trial court decisions point to the conclusion that the DWI statute only applies to motorized vehicles.

The New Jersey statute defining DWI specifically states that an offense occurs when a person is operating a “motor vehicle.” State law defines a “motor vehicle” to include most vehicles “propelled otherwise than by muscular power.” This definition excludes trains and other rail-based vehicles, as well as “motorized bicycles.” The law defines a “motorized bicycle” as a pedal bicycle that can be assisted by a motor that allows it to travel at a maximum of 25 miles per hour—commonly known as a moped. A separate statute addresses operating a motorized bicycle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and it imposes the same penalties as in a DWI case involving a motor vehicle.

Several New Jersey trial courts have addressed the question of whether the DWI statute applies to bicycles. Since none of these cases resulted in an Appellate Division ruling, they are not binding on other courts. They may still be persuasive, though. In 1982, the Superior Court in Somerset County held in State v. Tehan that the DWI statute applies to bicycles, but only to a partial extent. Bicycle riders are “subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle,” the court noted. It also found that, since riding a bicycle does not require a license, the driver’s license suspension provisions of the DWI statute do not apply to bicycles. It affirmed the municipal court’s guilty verdict and the fine, but it reversed the license suspension.

Other courts have mostly declined to follow Tehan. In a 1985 decision, State v. Johnson, a Cumberland County court found that the DWI statute does not apply to bicycles. It noted that the statutory definition of “motor vehicle” specifically excludes vehicles “moved by human power.” It therefore held that, absent some other indication that the Legislature intended to include bicycles, the plain language of the statute excludes them. It reversed the defendant’s guilty verdict. A Somerset County court also declined to follow Tehan in State v. Machuzak in 1988, citing Johnson in its ruling.

An Appellate Division ruling from 1988, while not specifically related to DWI, also supports the exclusion of bicycles from the DWI statute. The court’s decision in Nunag v. Pa. Nat. Mut. Cas. Ins. Co. dealt with a question of auto insurance coverage, based on whether the plaintiff/appellee was a “pedestrian” when she was operating a moped. The court ruled in the insurance company’s favor, citing many of the same definitions as the Johnson court in finding that the plaintiff intended to use the moped’s motorized features.

DWI attorney Evan Levow has defended people in New Jersey courts for more than 20 years. He can guide you through the court system, help you understand your rights, and advocate on your behalf both in and out of court. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

DWI Arrests Across State Lines from New Jersey Can Have Very Different Consequences, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, February 13, 2017

New Jersey Driver Found Sleeping in His Car Acquitted of DWI After Judge Finds Prosecutors Failed to Prove He Intended to Drive, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 24, 2016

Consequences of DWI Conviction in New Jersey Extend Beyond License Suspension, Could Include Loss of Employment Benefits, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 19, 2016

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