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Rhode Island Supreme Court Rules “Backseat Driver” Is a Real Thing Under Criminal Statutes

by Christopher Zoukis

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has determined that a passenger in the back seat of a vehicle who lunges forward and jerks the steering wheel qualifies as an “operator” of the vehicle.

The November 14, 2017 opinion considered the criminal case against Luke Peters. On August 6, 2014, Peters and three other individuals began drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Two of them, Julia and Kajia, were minors. With John Willette at the wheel, the group headed onto the highway. As they were traveling at a high rate of speed, Peters suddenly leapt from the back seat of the car and turned the steering wheel violently. The car lost control and rolled over. Kajia was seriously injured in the crash, and Julia suffered injuries as well.

Peters was charged with several crimes as a result of the incident. At issue on appeal were four counts, all of which involved an allegation that Peters was “driving” or “operating” the vehicle under G.L. §§ 31-27-1.2 (driving so as to endanger, resulting in serious bodily injury), 31-27-2.6 (driving under the influence, resulting in serious bodily injury), and 31-11-18 (driving with a revoked license).

At trial, Peters moved to dismiss, arguing that he was neither driving nor operating the vehicle. The magistrate denied his motion, but the trial judge granted it, stating, “I don’t think that the act of [defendant] tugging on the wheel was anything more than that. And if there’s a statute that makes it criminally negligent to interfere with or impede the operation of a motor vehicle, then charge [defendant] with it, but don’t charge him with driving or operating a motor vehicle drunk or recklessly.”

On appeal, the Rhode Island Supreme Court noted that the case involved an issue of first impression: “whether a passenger in a moving vehicle who forcibly seizes the steering wheel has exercised sufficient control of the vehicle to be deemed a ‘driver’ or ‘operator’ under” the statutes in question.

The issue was one of statutory construction, so the Court looked closely at the statutory definitions of “driver” and “operator.” Could these terms “encompass a passenger in a moving motor vehicle who suddenly seizes the wheel from the driver and steers the vehicle[?]” They could. The Court ruled that the definitions, found in G.L. § 31-1-17, were clear and unambiguous. An “operator” is defined as “every person, other than a chauffeur, who drives or is in actual physical control of a motor vehicle upon a highway or who is exercising control over or steering a vehicle being towed by a motor vehicle.” According to the Court, that language “provides for two types of operators: the driver or a person who is in actual physical control of the vehicle.”

“[W]e conclude that the conduct alleged in this case falls within the definition of ‘operating’ as set forth in § 31-1-17,” ruled the Court. “By forcibly controlling and altering a fundamental feature of a moving vehicle—such as steering the direction of the vehicle—defendant placed himself squarely in the realm of an operator of a vehicle.” Thus, the Court announced that Peters’ “conduct can support a prosecution for violating” the statutes under which he was charged.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Superior Court and remanded the case for further proceedings.

See: State v. Peters, 172 A.3d 156 (R.I. 2017). 

 

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