Max often begins a question with “can you,” as in: can you ride a bicycle drunk? For the record, I’m sure you can ride a bicycle drunk but I don’t recall if I ever have. But when Max asks a question this way, he really wants to know—whatever the idea he has come up with—can you legally do it? Like ride a bicycle drunk.
When this question came up, the bets in our family were 2-2, with parents saying it’s against the law and kids saying it’s perfectly legal. Augie, who is five, first said “no,” then changed his answer and also commented that “I think it’s OK so long as the police don’t see you.” Hmmm. A practical streak, that kid.
Turns out, the kids are right. It’s not against the law in Minnesota to be an intoxicated bicyclist. Minnesota’s driving while impaired (DWI) laws cover motor vehicles, motorboats, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles, and off-road vehicles. But not bicycles. Bicycles are specifically exempted (in good sense) from Minnesota’s definition of a motor vehicle, to wit:
Motor vehicle does not include an electric personal assistive mobility device or a vehicle moved solely by human power.
Oh, you noticed the “electric personal assistive mobility device?” Y’know, one of those electric mobility scooters. Or, how about a Segway? It’s not a motor vehicle, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals actually weighed in on this one, upholding the dismissal of a case against a Minnesota man who, while on his way home hopped on his Segway while legally drunk (and started drifting into the road from the walking path). Barry Edwards, a friend and Minnesota criminal defense lawyer, has other examples, including a Zamboni, riding lawnmower, electric golf cart, and motorized La-Z-Boy.
But I digress. We’re talking about a bicycle.
The Intoxicated Bicyclist
Just because it’s legal to ride your bicycle drunk does not mean 1) it’s a good idea or 2) you’re not breaking some other law or 3) it’s legal in all states.
First, the question Max asked is whether you can be charged with a specific crime of, say, bicycling while intoxicated (BWI). At least in Minnesota, there is no such crime. But there are other state laws and local ordinances dealing with being intoxicated. For instance, you can legally ride your bicycle drunk to a polling place, but you cannot be intoxicated in a polling place, and you cannot vote if you are “obviously intoxicated.”
What about the simple act of being publicly drunk? Y’know, on your bike on a public city street? Not a crime. Minnesota’s Liquor Act states that “Drunkeness [Is] Not a Crime“:
No person may be charged with or convicted of the offense of drunkenness or public drunkenness. Nothing herein prevents the prosecution and conviction of an intoxicated person for offenses other than drunkenness or public drunkenness nor does this section relieve a person from civil liability for an injury to persons or property caused by the person while intoxicated.
Wow. Ever since the Andy Griffith Show, I always thought it was a crime to be publicly drunk. Turns out it’s not in Minnesota, with exceptions. So being drunk on a bicycle in Minnesota— without doing something else like, say, commuting intoxicated to a job on a train or steamship—is perfectly legal.
The Interstate Traveling Drunken Bicyclist
If you choose to partake of bicycling under the influence (BUI), don’t do it in California. It’s illegal to ride a bicycle on California roads while drunk or under the influence of drugs (or both). The penalty? Up to a $250 fine and a misdemeanor on your record. Similarly, Colorado’s impaired driving laws apply to bicycles (and you can also be convicted of reckless driving of a bicycle in Colorado).
South Dakota law specifically excludes drunk horse-riding and drunk tricycling from its DUI laws, saying that they do not apply to:
any person who is riding
(1) A horse or other animal; and
(2) A bicycle, tricycle, or other unpowered foot-pedal conveyance.
I love South Dakota’s added detail of “other animal.” Turns out that being drunk and riding a dog, donkey, cat, or muskrat in South Dakota is perfectly legal—provided it doesn’t run afoul of some other animal protection law.
Washington state has a specific law covering “intoxicated bicyclists,” but it does not make it illegal to bike while drunk. Instead, it allows a police officer to offer help or transport an intoxicated biker to a safe place, though the officer cannot help out “if the bicycle rider refuses to accept it.” It does allow the officer to impound a bicycle if the continued riding of it drunk would be a threat to public safety.
Oregon, Washington’s southern neighbor, is not so magnanimous with drunken cyclists. Under Oregon law, riding a bicycle while intoxicated is the same as driving a vehicle while intoxicated, with all the penalties associated with drunken driving, including Oregon’s “three strikes” rule for revocation of a driver license.
And in Illinois, a man who was drunk on a bicycle ran a red light and collided with a motorcyle. He was charged with driving under the influence, but the court dismissed the charge because, similar to Minnesota, a bicycle is not a motor vehicle for purposes of the DUI statute. So, unless the law has changed, it’s legal to be drunk on a bicycle in Illinois.