Today, October 21, the Fourth Circuit reverses convictions of driving on a revoked license and driving after having been adjudicated a habitual offender.  The case is US v. Adams.

There is no question about the revoked license part, or the habitual offender part.  The legal problem arises in where Adams was caught driving.  In this instance, the well-travelled path was a gravel road in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.  Ordinarily, that road is open to the public, but in the wake of Hurricane Isabel in late 2003, the road was closed to the public, due to storm damage that apparently rendered the road unsafe.

That didn’t stop Adams from taking a cruise down the lane, to enjoy nature’s splendors.  When a federal agent pulled him over, he unquestionably had probable cause, given the road closure.  But he did not find Adams driving on a highway, as defined in the Code of Virginia.  The key to that finding is that the road be “open to the public for purposes of vehicular travel,” and this road was unquestionably not open.

The district court ruled against Adams, finding that the closure was both temporary and for public necessity.  The Fourth Circuit finds these arguments unavailing; closed means closed, and this was a closed road.  Adams’ convictions are thus reversed.

This line of reasoning has been applied in other contexts to roads that are, for one reason or another, not open to the public.  A number of such charges have been dismissed in the district courts where the ostensibly public road was located on a military base, and as such was not open for public travel.  Today’s opinion notes that this and the related rulings may be anomalous, but it is up to the Virginia legislature to remedy the anomaly, if it sees fit.