When is a Horse a Vehicle?

In Kentucky. Lowering the Bar explains:

WKYT reported on Monday that a 55-year-old Jessamine County man had been cited for riding while intoxicated. The man said he was trail-riding with some friends and had stopped to have something to eat “when the deputy arrived and told me to get off my horse.” He explained that he is severely diabetic and hadn’t eaten, and that is why he staggered after dismounting, not because he was intoxicated . . .

The report says the man was charged with a violation of Section 189.520, “Operating a vehicle not a motor vehicle while under influence of intoxicants or substance which may impair driving ability prohibited.”  . . .  The statutory language is better than the title: “No person under the influence of intoxicating beverages or any substance which may impair one’s driving ability shall operate a vehicle that is not a motor vehicle anywhere in this state.”

[A]ren’t there often statutes that define certain legal terms? Yes, and there’s one here. And sadly for Rooster Cogburn, it defines “vehicle” as including “All agencies for the transportation of persons or property over or upon the public highways of the Commonwealth.…” So while I still like my “animal is not a vehicle” argument, Kentucky has precluded it.”

Seems like a good example to use in a class on statutory interpretation.  Isn’t the obvious question what an “agency” is for the purposes of Kentucky law?

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8 Responses

  1. Scott Dodson says:

    Also, is riding “operating”?

  2. Hillel Levin says:

    Funny, I just did a “No Vehicles” exercise in my statutory interpretation class today.

    It does not strike me that this is an absurd or even odd result. Sure, we don’t usually refer to horses as vehicles, but riding a horse while intoxicated likely risks the same kinds of harms the statute is meant to prevent, such as the dangers imposed by those riding bikes while intoxicated.

    This might be useful as a reminder to students that statutory definitions trump ordinary meaning. You’d think this would be obvious, but students sometimes forget this.

  3. Hart and Sacks talk about the horse/car problem in their magisterial treatise (and I do in my far less magisterial Judicial process in a Nutshell (267-68). It was a common turn of the century problem

  4. Mark Fenster says:

    Remarkably, there’s a problem in Jellum & Hricik’s Modern Statutory Interpretation that’s identical to this. They say that they based it on “an incident that occurred in northern Alabama” covered in a newspaper article that Brian Slocum at McGeorge sent to them. They make the answer a little more complicated by having the fictional statute simply say “any vehicle” and not providing a statutory definition of “vehicle.”

    Who knew this was such a common occurrence? It reminds me why it’s fun to live in the south.

  5. Dave Hoffman says:


    Yes, I know it’s an old & classic problem. That’s why it’s so fantastic to find it incarnated again in a story today! Or, exactly what Mark Fenster said….

  6. Ken Arromdee says:

    If he is “intoxicated” because he hadn’t eaten, isn’t that being intoxicated by lack of a substance rather than being intoxicated by a substance? The statute only seems to apply to be intoxicated by a substance.

  7. Ken Rhodes says:

    Lacking similar specificity in the statute to define “intoxicated” as they included for “vehicle,” I think one would have to look at the word itself:

    In + toxin + some sort of verb participle suffix

    Low blood sugar from lack of food certainly does not equal ingesting a toxin.

  8. Jim Maloney says:

    “All agencies for the transportation of persons or property over or upon the public highways” could include, I suppose, one’s legs, a remote-control toy car (it transports property, if only itself), and perhaps even a carrier pigeon, if it flies “over” a highway carrying a tiny packet of “property.” As among these four examples, one “operates” one’s own legs and the toy car, but whether one can “operate” a living animal, as Scott Dodson (#1) points out, is questionable. The Huns reportedly slept on horseback while riding. Could that possibly be “operating”?

    So I think a viable defense (in addition to the substantive one of hypoglycemia rather than intoxication, but even that has a caveat, see below) would be a vague-as-applied argument. Notably, although this principle is inextricably tied to 14th-Amendment due process principles in modern times, its antecedents (seen in the “Rule of Lenity,” i.e., the principle that criminal statutes must be construed narrowly) omitted the 14th-Amendment nexus. See United States v. Brewer, 139 U.S. 278 (1891); People v. Stewart, 765 N.Y.S.2d 1 (2003) (setting forth history). (Thanks to Dan Lawson for bringing this to my attention in his brief in Small v. Bud-K.)

    As for the caveat, hypoglycemia in diabetics results not simply from lack of food but from taking their medication (e.g., insulin or pills) and failing to eat. If a horse can be a “vehicle,” perhaps such a medication could be a “substance which may impair one’s driving ability.”
    This talk of horses, birds, and statutory construction has me thinking of that famous (non-)case of Regina v. Ojibway.