MORGANTOWN – Outgoing state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin has always had a libertarian lean.
Benjamin, who lost his bid for re-election in May, frequently has posited questions during his tenure on the court about government’s role in the everyday lives of citizens.
Now in a dissenting opinion in a case about drunk driving on private property, Benjamin has let his libertarian flag fly.
The high court ruled 4-1 that the state Division of Motor Vehicles has the authority to revoke driving privileges for motorists caught driving drunk on private property, as well as the public roadways.
Joshua Beckett wrecked his ATV on the family-owned farm in Monroe County in 2012, and had to be taken to the hospital. Beckett admitted he had been drinking — his blood-alcohol content was twice the legal limit — and the sheriff’s department charged him with driving under the influence.
A magistrate dismissed the criminal charge, but the DMV revoked Beckett’s license for 45 days. He appealed, and the high court found in favor of the DMV, saying the agency’s authority in drunk driving cases extends to “anywhere within the physical boundaries of this state.”
In his dissent, Justice Benjamin accused the majority of encroachment by the state on “the rights and liberties of private citizens.”
The majority “sanctioned the infringement of two of our most basic natural rights: the right to do what one wants to do in the privacy of one’s estate so long as another is not harmed and the right to be left alone,” the Justice wrote.
Benjamin does not question the imprudence of drinking and operating an ATV, but argues that focusing on the behavior in this case misses the point; Beckett’s personal liberty supersedes any perceived state interest.
“The realization of liberty lies in terms of non-interference by public authorities in the lives of citizens,” Benjamin wrote.
Government “interferes” with the lives of citizens all the time, but the substantive issue here is whether that intervention should extend to a person’s behavior on their private property as long as that individual is not infringing on the rights of others.
“When the use and enjoyment of one’s property is unreasonably constrained, it logically follows that the natural rights of life and liberty become severely restricted,” Benjamin wrote.
Benjamin is alone in his dissent. The case is settled and the suspension of Beckett’s driver’s license stands. Also, there is no reason to suspect that the police, who are already overburdened, are going to storm onto people’s property and start giving breathalyzer tests to ATV riders.
However, the case does raise a legitimate question about the Legislature’s intent in crafting the drunk driving law to apply to the condition of the driver and not where the vehicle is being operated. The case also prompts a larger discussion about the extent of the state’s reach into regulating personal behavior on private property.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.