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People v. Rea

Supreme Court of Michigan

July 24, 2017

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
GINO ROBERT REA, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued on application for leave to appeal April 25, 2017.

          Chief Justice: Stephen J. Markman Justices: Brian K. Zahra Bridget M. McCormack David F. Viviano Richard H. Bernstein Joan L. Larsen Kurtis T. Wilder

         Syllabus

         Gino R. Rea was charged in the Oakland Circuit Court with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (OWI), MCL 257.625(1). A police officer parked his patrol vehicle in the street in front of defendant's driveway while responding to noise complaints from defendant's neighbor. As the officer walked up the straight driveway, defendant backed out of his detached garage and down the driveway. When the officer shined his flashlight to alert defendant that he was in the driveway, defendant stopped his car in the driveway, next to the house. Defendant then put his car in drive and pulled forward into the garage, bumping into stored items in the back of the garage. Defendant, who smelled of alcohol and whose speech was slurred, was arrested for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated after he refused to take field sobriety tests; defendant's blood alcohol level was later determined to be three times the legal limit set forth in MCL 257.625(1)(b). After his arraignment, defendant moved to quash the information. The court, Colleen A. O'Brien, J., granted the motion and dismissed the charge, finding that the upper portion of defendant's driveway, closest to the garage, was not a place generally accessible to motor vehicles for purposes of criminal liability under MCL 257.625(1). On appeal, the Court of Appeals, Gleicher, P.J., and Shapiro, J., (Jansen, J., dissenting), affirmed the trial court's order, concluding that because the general public is not widely permitted to access the upper portion of a private driveway, defendant's operation of his vehicle while intoxicated did not fit within the purview of behavior prohibited under MCL 257.625(1). 315 Mich.App. 151 (2016). The Supreme Court ordered and heard oral argument on whether to grant the prosecution's application for leave to appeal or take other peremptory action. 500 Mich. 871 (2016).

         In an opinion by Justice Bernstein, joined by Chief Justice Markman and Justices Zahra, and Wilder, the Supreme Court, in lieu of granting leave to appeal, held:

         MCL 257.625(1) of the Michigan Vehicle Code, MCL 257.1 et seq., prohibits a person, whether licensed or not, from operating a vehicle upon a highway or other place open to the general public or generally accessible to motor vehicles, including an area designated for the parking of vehicles within this state if the person is operating while intoxicated. The phrase "generally accessible" in MCL 257.625(1) is not defined by the Michigan Vehicle Code. In light of the dictionary definitions of these words, "generally accessible" means usually or ordinarily capable of being reached. In contrast to the phrase "open to the general public, " which concerns who may access the location, the phrase "generally accessible to motor vehicles" concerns what can access the location. Accordingly, when determining whether a place is generally accessible to motor vehicles, the focus is not on whether most people can access the area or have permission to use it but on whether most motor vehicles can access the area. In context, MCL 257.625(1) prohibits an intoxicated person from operating a motor vehicle in a place that is usually capable of being reached by self-propelled vehicles. Had the Legislature intended to prohibit driving while intoxicated only in areas actually used by motor vehicles, it would have used different language in the statute. In this case, defendant's driveway was designed for vehicular travel and there was nothing on his driveway that would have prevented motor vehicles on the public street from turning into it. Accordingly, defendant's driveway was generally accessible to motor vehicles for purposes of MCL 257.625(1). The Court of Appeals erred by affirming the trial court's dismissal of the OWI charge against defendant.

         Court of Appeals judgment reversed, circuit court order of dismissal vacated, and the case remanded.

         Justice Larsen, concurring in the result only, concluded that the case at issue fit easily within the statutory language and therefore would have waited for a case that pushed the boundaries of MCL 257.625 to explore the edges of the statutory language. The whole point of a driveway is to provide access to motor vehicles. Where the place is designed to be capable of being reached by motor vehicles, the answer to whether it is "generally accessible to motor vehicles" is simple: of course. Nonetheless, the majority's definition of accessibility, which focused on whether a place is physically capable of being reached, might be too broad. And the dissent's understanding, which focused on legal or customary accessibility, failed to consider that if "accessible" means "legally accessible, " there is nothing in the statute to suggest that one's trips up and down their own driveway should not count. Driveways, in general, are legally accessible by, at least, some motor vehicles. And if "generally" means "usually, " or "in general, " then driveways are "generally accessible to motor vehicles, " whether "accessible" means "physically capable of being reached, " "physically easy to reach, " or "legally capable of being reached." Only if "generally" includes some idea of volume ("popularly") and "accessible" means "legally so, " could driveways possibly be out of bounds. But that reading would come at the cost of the most natural reading of the statutory text. Instead, because driveways are clearly included within the statute's prohibition against operating a vehicle while intoxicated upon places generally accessible to motor vehicles, Justice Larsen would have concluded that it was not necessary to establish the precise boundaries of MCL 257.625(1) in this case.

         Justice McCormack, joined by Justice Viviano, dissenting, agreed with the majority that the Legislature's 1991 amendment of MCL 257.625(1) prohibited the operation of motor vehicles while intoxicated in other places in that the language "generally accessible" evidenced an intent to expand the scope of the statute to cover additional places not covered by the original language. But Justice McCormack disagreed with the majority's conclusion that MCL 257.625(1) prohibits an individual from driving a vehicle while intoxicated on a private driveway. The majority's broad interpretation of the language-whether a place is usually capable of being physically reached by a motor vehicle-threatened to swallow the original "open to the general public" language in the statute in that the majority's interpretation effectively bans in all places the operation of a vehicle in Michigan while intoxicated. The majority's broad interpretation ignores that when the Legislature has wanted to prohibit driving specific types of motor vehicles in all places while intoxicated, it has clearly done so. Examining the three related clauses in MCL 257.625(1), it is clear that the Legislature did not intend for the "generally accessible" clause to extend the reach of the statute to every place in this state, but rather to cover places that are open to an appreciable number of motor vehicles, even when access is restricted by physical or other barriers to entry; a place is "generally accessible" if it is a place where vehicles are routinely permitted to enter. While many private roads are generally accessible to motor vehicles-and would therefore come within the purview of prohibited conduct in MCL 257.625(1)-private driveways are not. It should not be assumed that the Legislature intended to extend the scope of the statute to include the private property of individual homeowners because the statute has historically focused on areas open to the general public without restriction. Justice McCormack would have affirmed the result reached by the Court of Appeals.

         BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

          OPINION

          Bernstein, J.

         This case concerns whether defendant, Gino R. Rea, may be charged under MCL 257.625 for operating a motor vehicle in his private driveway while intoxicated. We hold that, because defendant's conduct occurred in an area generally accessible to motor vehicles, the conduct was within the purview of MCL 257.625(1). Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, vacate the trial court's dismissal of the case, and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In the early morning hours of March 31, 2014, police officers were dispatched three times to defendant's home because of a neighbor's noise complaints. On the third visit, Northville police officer Ken DeLano parked his patrol vehicle in the street in front of defendant's driveway, which is paved and straight. The driveway begins on the street, passes to the right of defendant's home, and extends to defendant's garage at the end of the driveway. The garage is detached from the home, and it is situated within defendant's backyard. There are no physical obstructions that block entry to defendant's driveway from the street.

         As Officer DeLano walked up defendant's driveway to investigate the noise complaint, the overhead garage door opened, and defendant started to back his car down the driveway. After Officer DeLano shined his flashlight to alert defendant of his presence, defendant stopped his car, coming to a rest in the driveway, next to his house. When Officer DeLano approached defendant, who had remained in his car, the officer noticed a strong odor of intoxicants. Officer DeLano also observed that defendant's eyes were glassy and blood shot and his speech was slurred. Defendant suddenly put the car in drive and pulled forward into the garage, bumping into stored items in the back of the garage. Defendant then got out of the car and started to walk toward Officer DeLano, swaying as he walked. Officer DeLano asked defendant to perform field sobriety tests, but defendant refused. Defendant was then arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. A blood test later conducted at a hospital revealed a blood alcohol level of .242 grams per 100 milliliters of blood-three times the legal limit. See MCL 257.625(1)(b).

         The Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney charged defendant with one count of operating while intoxicated (OWI), MCL 257.625(1). Following a preliminary examination, defendant was bound over to the Oakland Circuit Court, where he moved to quash the information. On October 30, 2014, the trial court granted defendant's motion and dismissed the case, finding that the upper portion[1] of defendant's driveway did not constitute an area that is "generally accessible to motor vehicles" for purposes of criminal liability under MCL 257.625(1). In a split, published opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling, holding that the upper portion of the driveway did not constitute a place generally accessible to motor vehicles because "[t]he 'general public' is not 'widely'. . . permitted to 'access' that portion of a private driveway immediately next to a private residence." People v Rea, 315 Mich.App. 151, 157; 889 N.W.2d 536');">889 N.W.2d 536 (2016).

         The prosecution sought leave to appeal in this Court. We scheduled oral argument on the application, directing the parties to address "whether the location where the defendant was operating a vehicle was a place within the purview of MCL 257.625." People v Rea, 500 Mich. 871 (2016).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Whether a defendant's conduct falls within the scope of a penal statute is a question of statutory interpretation that is reviewed de novo. People v Hill, 486 Mich. 658, 665-666; 786 N.W.2d 601 (2010). "Statutes . . . are interpreted in accordance with legislative intent . . . ." People v Mazur, 497 Mich. 302, 308; 872 N.W.2d 201 (2015). "[T]he most reliable evidence" of that intent is the plain language of the statute. Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted). When interpreting a statute, "we must give effect to every word, phrase, and clause and avoid an interpretation that would render any part of the statute surplusage or nugatory." People v Miller, 498 Mich. 13, 25; 869 N.W.2d 204 (2015) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Nontechnical words and phrases should be interpreted "according to the common and approved usage of the language." People v Dunbar, 499 Mich. 60, 67; 879 N.W.2d 229 (2016) (citation and quotation marks omitted). When a word or phrase is not defined by the statute in question, it is appropriate to consult dictionary definitions to determine the plain and ordinary meaning of the word or phrase. People v Feeley, 499 Mich. 429, 437; 885 N.W.2d 223 (2016).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Michigan Vehicle Code, MCL 257.1 et seq., prohibits a person from operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Specifically, MCL 257.625(1) provides in pertinent part:

A person, whether licensed or not, shall not operate a vehicle upon a highway or other place open to the general public or generally accessible to motor vehicles, including an area designated for the parking of vehicles, within this state if the person is operating while intoxicated.

         Accordingly, MCL 257.625(1) prohibits operating a vehicle while intoxicated in three types of locations: (1) upon a highway, (2) in a place open to the general public, or (3) in a place generally accessible to motor vehicles. The issue before us is whether defendant's driveway was "generally accessible to motor vehicles."[2]

         The crux of this dispute is the meaning of the phrase "generally accessible" in MCL 257.625(1). Because the Michigan Vehicle Code does not define the phrase "generally accessible, " we consult the dictionary definitions of these words. Feeley, 499 Mich. at 437. The word "generally" is an adverb that modifies the adjective "accessible." "Generally" is defined as "in a general manner"; "in disregard of specific instances and with regard to an overall picture"; and "as a rule: USUALLY." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed).[3] The term "accessible" means "providing access"; "capable of being reached: being within reach" and "capable of being used or seen." Id.[4]Therefore, the plain and ordinary meaning of the phrase "generally accessible" means "usually capable of being reached."

         This phrase must be considered in its statutory context: "other place . . . generally accessible to motor vehicles." MCL 257.625(1). The phrase "generally accessible" modifies the preceding noun phrase "other place." Accordingly, the prohibition in MCL 257.625(1) against operating a vehicle while intoxicated does not apply to every place.[5] Instead, the statute's prohibition applies only to highways, to other places open to the general public, and to other places that are generally accessible-that is, usually or ordinarily capable of being reached.[6] Finally, we must incorporate the phrase "to motor vehicles, " which is an adverbial prepositional phrase that modifies "generally accessible." The Michigan Vehicle Code defines "motor vehicle" as "every vehicle that is self-propelled . . . ." MCL 257.33. Therefore, as a whole, the relevant statutory provision prohibits an intoxicated person from operating a vehicle in a place that is usually capable of being reached by self-propelled vehicles.

         The Court of Appeals majority erred when it concluded that whether a place is "generally accessible to motor vehicles" depends on whether the general public "widely" or "popularly" has permission to enter the location.[7] Rea, 315 Mich.App. at 155-158. This conclusion is inconsistent with the plain language of the statute in several respects. First, the Court of Appeals majority erroneously construed the term "generally" to mean open to an unrestricted number of users. See id. at 157. But the use of the modifier "to motor vehicles" shows that the focus is not whether most people can access the area, but whether most motor vehicles can access the area. The Court of Appeals majority similarly erred by construing "accessible" to mean permission to enter. Id. An object, unlike an operator of the object, is not typically given permission to enter a location. We therefore read "accessible" to instead refer to whether motor vehicles have the ability to enter an unsecured private driveway, not whether their operators have permission to do so. Consequently, the Court of Appeals majority's statement that only a small subset of vehicles are permitted to use the upper portion of the driveway even though the public may access the lower portion of the driveway is simply irrelevant. See id. This arbitrary line-drawing between the lower and upper portion of defendant's driveway has no basis in the language of MCL 257.625(1).

         Furthermore, to construe the phrase "generally accessible" as dependent on whether the general public has permission to enter the location would conflate the two phrases "open to the general public" and "generally accessible to motor vehicles." In MCL 257.625, these two phrases are separated by the disjunctive term "or, " which indicates separate alternatives. See People v Kowalski, 489 Mich. 488, 499 n 11; 803 N.W.2d 200 (2011) (" 'Or' is . . . a disjunctive [term], used to indicate a disunion, a separation, an alternative.") (citation and quotation marks omitted; alteration in original). For that reason, to similarly interpret "generally accessible to motor vehicles" as concerning whether the general public has permission to enter would nullify the disjunctive term "or" and render the phrase "generally accessible to motor vehicles" needless surplusage. This Court must avoid an interpretation that would render any part of the statute nugatory. Miller, 498 Mich. at 25.

         This is especially true in light of the statutory history of MCL 257.625(1). Previously, MCL 257.625(1) only prohibited operating a vehicle under the influence of intoxicating liquor "upon a highway or other place open to the general public." MCL 257.625(1), as amended by 1982 PA 309, effective March 30, 1983. In 1991, the Legislature amended the statute to include an area not previously covered under the statute: a place that is "generally accessible to motor vehicles." See MCL 257.625(1), as amended by 1991 PA 98, effective January 1, 1992. This amendment broadened the scope of the OWI statute to include an additional, alternative place where operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated is prohibited.[8] People v Nickerson, 227 Mich.App. 434, 440; 575 N.W.2d 804');">575 N.W.2d 804 (1998). Accordingly, the phrase "generally accessible to motor vehicles" must be meaningfully distinguished from the phrase "open to the general public." "Open to the general public" concerns who may access the location, while "generally accessible to motor vehicles" concerns what can access the location. This interpretation avoids redundancy and provides meaning to both phrases.[9]

         We now apply our plain language interpretation of the statute to the facts at issue in this case. Defendant's private driveway is designed for vehicular travel.[10] Areas designed for vehicular travel, are by their nature, areas a vehicle is usually capable of accessing. Additionally, there is nothing on defendant's driveway that would prevent motor vehicles on the public street from turning into it.[11] Given these facts, defendant's driveway is a place motor vehicles are usually capable of ...


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