Riding while intoxicated


1914 Christmas message, C.M. Russell
Source: Montana Historical Society MacKay Collection, Helena, MT

Not long ago, Montana newspapers reported on a Montana Supreme Court case involving a woman who was allegedly riding while intoxicated.

Except she wasn’t.

In spite of sensationalistic headlines describing the case as a “drunken horse ride,” police actually encountered the woman leading her horse and attempting to get on the animal, but failing. The news reports also stated that the officers let her go “because she was on foot,” implying that they might have arrested her if she had been riding.

Except they probably wouldn’t have done so.

Here we have a great example of how most journalists aren’t legal experts.  The woman wasn’t arrested for riding under the influence; she wasn’t even on the horse.  The Montana Supreme Court  stated that—at 7:15 in the morning— the police “observed that [the woman] was stumbling and had difficulty maintaining her balance.”  But, “because she was not committing a crime, they allowed her to leave the area. The officers observed that she was physically unable to mount her horse, and after repeated unsuccessful attempts to stay on the horse, she led it away from the area.” State v. Ellis-Peterson, 2016 MT 159N, ¶2. So the police let her go, not because she dismounted, but because she was not breaking the law—yet.  It had nothing to do with riding the horse.

In Montana, you cannot be arrested solely for public intoxication.  That said, the police can still pick you up and either take you home  or hold you to be sure you are not a risk to yourself or to others. MCA §§ 53-24-107, -303.  (But see below—you can still be arrested in Montana if you are disorderly while drunk, and in some other states, you can be arrested for riding while under the influence.)

The woman got home safely, somehow, but then called 911 to complain that she should be allowed to ride her horse without being “pulled over.” As a result of her call, the police visited her to do a welfare check.* After a long and convoluted series of events, she told the police she was “just drunk” and had opened the door—naked—to yell at them. They still were not ready to arrest her.  (Note that all of this happened before noon.) The actual DUI charge came when the woman decided—only 20 minutes after the police finished their welfare check—to drive off in her pickup.  Driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol was the reason for her arrest.  Not riding a horse. 2016 MT 159N ¶4-6.

In short, in spite of the clickbait headline, this individual was not arrested for any of her shenanigans:  not for riding a horse while intoxicated—or even for yelling at the police while standing naked in her own doorway.   She was arrested because she got behind the wheel of a pickup and drove off.

The crux of the Montana Supreme Court decision was that, because of all her prior behavior, the police had probable cause to arrest her, and the Court upheld her conviction even though she had not been given a standard field sobriety test.  2016 MT 159N at ¶9-10.

So does this case stand for the proposition that it is illegal in Montana to ride a horse while intoxicated?  No.   The headlines were attention-getting (but wrong), newspaper explanations of the court’s holding were generally “overbroad” (hence, wrong), and in short we have a great example of a misleading headline leading the reader to an erroneous conclusion.

On the other hand, in 2010, the Montana Department of Transportation’s Plan2Live campaign aired an ad showing a horse acting as a “friend” and being a “designated driver”of sorts for an intoxicated young man.  Many people questioned if this ad meant it was OK to ride a horse if you were drunk, and it generated a story in USA Today that quoted a colleague of mine, Luke Berger, who is now a District Court Judge, saying, “I wouldn’t recommend that anyone does that, but . . . you can ride your horse after drinking.”

So, it is not illegal to ride a horse while intoxicated in Montana. MCA § 61-8-401 states that you have to be in control of a “vehicle”.1 The definitions statute, MCA §61-1-101 (90) defines a “vehicle” to specifically exempt “devices moved by animal power,” which, implicitly, includes horses, both ridden and driven.

But is it a really bad idea to ride while under the influence?  Yes.  Is it dangerous?  Yes!  I’ll go a bit farther than the honorable Judge Berger and state, unequivocally, just don’t do it! 

First off, it’s dangerous for you.  You are not in control of the horse, the horse will think for itself, and not necessarily on your behalf. You can fall off, get bucked off, or have the horse run off.  You can be stepped on, kicked, and any number of other disasters can occur.  As the woman in the court case discovered, even getting on and staying on a perfectly well-behaved horse can be fraught with hazards if you are inebriated. The horse might know its way home; but it also may decide the grass is greener elsewhere.  The horse might take pity on you, but he or she might also decide it’s a good time to dispose of your sorry self and head for the back 80.

Second, it’s bad for the horse. Your coordination —and your common sense —is impaired. You could bump, hit, or kick your horse, jerk its mouth, yell at it, or just make a lot of confusing noises and movements. Quite possibly, you’ll be abusive.  At the very worst, your actions could get both you and the horse injured.

Even in Montana, if you ride while intoxicated, you could find yourself arrested for other things, such as disorderly conduct. MCA §45-8-101.  In some states and jurisdictions, such as Louisiana, you can be arrested for public intoxication, or, as happened in a Florida case, be charged with cruelty to animals.  And in any state, if your horse has to be impounded while you are hauled off in a vehicle with flashing lights, the horse could wind up boarded at public expense. If you don’t pay up, you could be subject to an agister’s lien for the boarding fees—the person boarding your horse could sell it to pay the board bill! MCA §71-3-1211.

So, yes, it may be legal to ride under the influence in Montana, but for you and your horse’s sake, please don’t.  And for your own safety and the safety of all the rest of us, never, ever, get behind the wheel of a vehicle if you aren’t 100% sober. That is life-threatening for you and others, even if you’re under the legal limit. Have a designated (human) driver. Be safe.

*By and large, police in Montana do spend a lot of time doing “welfare checks” on people when worried friends or neighbors call in.  We’re still a small enough state that people are still seen as unique individuals.  It’s one of the nice things about living here.

  1. MCA § 61-8-401 (3)(b) also excludes bicycles, for those who are interested.

Copyright 2016, Brenda Wahler

This article is premised solely upon Montana law.  If you do not live in Montana, some of the material contained in this article may not be applicable in your jurisdiction.  Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for personal legal advice.  Please read my general disclaimer.  (Also, I do not practice in the area of DUI defense.)

One thought on “Riding while intoxicated

  1. Haha! I knew an old gunsmith/sword maker who at the age of 80+ would ride his horse to the bar when he knew he was going to get drunk. He got “pulled over” one night and given a ticket for riding while intoxicated (in Washington state). When he went to court to fight the ticket, he told them that his horse was his designated driver–and argued that the horse wasn’t going to run over anyone, and would always find his way home. The judge agreed and dropped the charges.

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