So a few days ago, I represented a guy down in McDowell County, West Virginia, on a misdemeanor charge of driving on a two-lane road in an ATV/UTV/side-by-side. West Virginia law allows you to do this. But apparently there is confusion, or ignorance, in the local sheriff’s department and/or prosecutor’s office. We were forced to have a trial, which resulted in a not guilty verdict. Here’s the actual criminal complaint charging my client with the non-crime of operating an ATV on a two-lane road in West Virginia:
Clearly this police officer was wrong about the law.
W. Va. Code Section 17F-1-1 allows ATVS to:
- Operate on any single lane road (most roadways in rural West Virginia).
- Operate on a two-lane road for a distance of 10 miles or less, so long as the ATV it is either on the shoulder of the road, or as far to the right on the pavement as possible if there is insufficient shoulder to ride on, and at a speed of 25 mph or less, in order to travel between “a residence or lodging and off-road trails, fields and areas of operation, including stops for food, fuel, supplies and restrooms.” If operated at night, an ATV must be equipped with headlights and taillights, which must be turned on – obviously. Read it for yourself, here: https://www.wvlegislature.gov/WVCODE/Code.cfm?chap=17f&art=1
So, slightly confusing and a few grey areas, but if you’ve been around the Hatfield & McCoy Trails, you know that it’s necessary to use a two-lane road at times to get where you need to go on an ATV. And in other counties, where there are no Hatfield & McCoy Trails, we still need to go down two-lanes at times to get from one place we’re allowed to ride, to another (whether farms/fields/one-lanes/gas stations, etc.)
Unfortunately however, when we arrived to court on this particular case, the prosecutor looked at me in amazement when I told her that the client hadn’t committed a crime, even assuming all the allegations in the criminal complaint are true. She said dismissively that the client could plead guilty and pay the fines. Of course, I said, “no way, Jose.”
So we had a trial. During the trial, the charging police officer testified that no ATVs are ever allowed to be on a two-lane road, and that his supervisor instructed him, in accordance with this, to “clear” ATVs from the roads, because the Hatfield & McCoy system was closed by the Governor due to COVID-19.
But that has nothing to do with the statute. The Governor can’t change the ATV laws by executive order; nor did he attempt to. Accessing the H&M trails isn’t the only reason ATVs are used in West Virginia. The officer cited 17F-1-1 as his legal authority to “clear the roads.” But in reality, the law still says what it says. Therefore, the magistrate judge correctly found my client not guilty.
There had been no allegations of unsafe or improper operation of the ATV – just that he was on a double yellow line. The officer testified that he didn’t know where the client was coming from – nor where he was going. He had no evidence that my client had been illegally operating on the H&M trail system. The complaint itself corroborates this. It didn’t mention anything other than the fact that he caught him on a two-lane.
However, there were facts pertaining to the officer’s conduct. He got angry and took the citation back, after the mayor of the town where this occurred – Northfork – apparently said that ATVs were welcome and allowed in her ATV-friendly town. Muttering the “F word,” the officer left the city hall, confiscated citation in hand. The testimony at trial was that about an hour later, the officer showed up at my client’s residence – the client wasn’t even home at the time – and threw the citation inside the empty, parked ATV in the driveway. That wasn’t the reason for the not guilty verdict, just a bizarre way to re-issue a ticket. But in any event, it was a non-crime, so the verdict was rightly “not guilty.”
Following the trial, I posted on Facebook that my client had been found not guilty, and that the Governor’s tyrannical executive orders had no effect on the state’s ATV laws, and expressed disbelief that the local sheriff’s department and prosecutor’s office would hassle ATV riders, when that’s really the only thing the local economy has going for it at this point. Did I bash a county by saying this? No, facts are facts. I said nothing about the county, unless you’re referring to the sheriff’s department and the prosecutor’s office prosecuting an innocent man for a non-crime.
Let’s look at the facts though…..
To argue that McDowell County doesn’t have a crisis economy is to stick your head in the sand. Pointing this out is not bashing, nor exploiting, the county. Anyone who makes such an accusation, is either ignorant, or a willing propagandist. Hell, in 1963 – I’ll repeat: 1963 – President John F. Kennedy said:
I don’t think any American can be satisfied to find in McDowell County, West Virginia, 20 or 25 percent of the people of that county out of work, not for 6 weeks or 12 weeks, but for a year, 2, 3, or 4 years.
The situation has only worsened there. McDowell County has been classified as a “food desert” by the USDA. In 2017, there were two full-sized grocery stores serving the county’s 535 square miles. The only Walmart super center in the county closed in 2016 Coyne, Caity (April 7, 2018). “In McDowell County ‘food desert,’ concerns about the future”. Charleston Gazette-Mail. Retrieved January 19, 2020. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen another closed Walmart anywhere in the country.
State officials estimate that there are between 5,000 to 8,000 abandoned homes and buildings in McDowell County alone that need to come down. Legislation was introduced this year to fund the removal of many of these “blight” areas. See https://www.register-herald.com/opinion/editorials/editorial-removing-blight-swope-s-measure-important-to-west-virginia/article_6d4359cf-8b21-5430-9769-2f874e8fee9b.html They’ve been working on this for years. From a newspaper article from 2015:
WELCH — For years, it has been difficult for McDowell County officials to recognize the obvious fact that deserted and dilapidated structures countywide represent a negative image for visitors to the county.
“U.S. Route 52 is the gateway to our county,” Harold McBride, president of the McDowell County Commission said during a press conference Friday morning at the McDowell County Public Library in Welch. “It looks like a Third World country,” he said and added that most of the dilapidated buildings are owned by people who live outside the state and “think they have something.”https://www.bdtonline.com/news/officials-and-coal-operators-work-to-remove-blighted-structures/article_e4961188-00f9-11e5-86d4-4b27287a4886.html?mode=jqm
From the Charleston Gazette in 2013:
There were 100,000 people in McDowell County in 1950. Today, there are about 22,000 residents,” Altizer said.From 2000 to 2010, McDowell County’s population dropped by nearly 20 percent, from 27,329 people to 22,064 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”It is so sad we are losing so much population. Half of our homes are on homestead exemption, which lowers property taxes for people who are over 65 or disabled,” Altizer said during a recent interview in the McDowell County Courthouse.Today, Altizer said, most income to county residents come from coal and natural gas jobs, or from checks retired people receive — Social Security, black lung, the Veterans Administration and United Mine Workers.”The monthly West Virginia Economic Survey prepared by Workforce West Virginia recently reported there were about 6,000 people working in the county, many of them with government jobs or fast-food jobs. We have an older population today. And there are not new jobs here,” Altizer said.”Coal and gas are keeping us going.https://www.wvgazettemail.com/business/mcdowell-county-fighting-long-term-decline/article_cb381937-e129-59fd-8d7d-f1fb88dbe6a1.html
Here’s an interesting article, with photos from an actual photographer, rather than the few I snapped with my obsolete iPhone. Take a look for yourself and determine if the few pictures I snapped were somehow misleading about the blight in the county:
From the article:
This decline in work lead to the creation of modern era food stamps. The Chloe and Alderson Muncy family of Paynesville, McDowell County were the first recipients of modern day food stamps in America. Their household included 15 people. The city of Welch, and crowds of reporters watched as Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman delivered $95 of federal food stamps to Mr. and Mrs. Muncy on May 29, 1961. This was an important moment in history, as it was the first issuance of federal food stamps under the Kennedy Administration. This federal assistance program continued to expand for years to come, and is commonly used across the United States today.https://architecturalafterlife.com/2018/01/12/welcome-to-welch/
Fortunately for the county, in 2018, the state opened two new trail connections in McDowell County. From a May, 2018 newspaper article:
WELCH — Two new ATV trail connections opening today in McDowell County will give visitors direct access to the city of Welch and the town of Kimball, the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority’s executive director said Tuesday.
“As of in the morning (today), we’ll have the town of Kimball and the city of Welch will be connected to the Hatfield-McCoy Trail in the Indian Ridge system,” Executive Director Jeffrey Lusk said. “This will allow riders of the trails to go into those communities to get food and fuel and to stay. These are two new towns that weren’t on the system. Up until today, the only two towns that were connected were Northfork and Keystone….
The new Warrior Trail will connect with Gary and Welch. ATV riders will be able to travel from the town of Bramwell to the town of War starting on Labor Day, he added. More lodging opportunities are needed to help McDowell County’s communities benefit from the increase ATV tourism traffic.
“We’re opening the Warrior Trail System up on Labor Day Weekend,” Lusk said. “We’re in desperate need of places to stay in War, Gary and Welch come Labor Day Weekend.
Tourism traffic continues to grow on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail’s overall system, Lusk stated. Last year, overall permit sales were up by 15.1 percent, and both Mercer and McDowell Counties had the highest growth in sales.https://www.bdtonline.com/news/new-trail-links-opening-on-hatfield-mccoy/article_6d82ce36-5e22-11e8-a13b-a3912708cd04.html
Being an ATV rider myself, I know first hand how the community benefits from the ATV economy. Local entrepreneurs now have opportunities to open ATV resorts, restaurants, and other businesses, which cater to ATV riders. ATV riders bring money. These new ATVs are 15-30k vehicles, each, when it comes to the side-by-sides, and not far off from that for the individual four wheelers. Watch them drive in. They’re driving 70k trucks, pulling 10k trailers, in many instances. They’ve invested heavily in the hobby. They spend money, not only on their equipment, but on food, lodging, gas, and so on. And they come from all over. I’ve even seen guys who drove all the way from Mexico to ride these trails.
Some of them even invest in local real estate, such as the client I represented in this case, who loved the community so much, he bought his own place. But go on and attack me for daring to “bash” McDowell County…. So let’s continue with some facts, instead of knee-jerk emotion.
What are some of the side effects of the economic problems?
Of 3,142 counties in the U.S. in 2013, McDowell County, West Virginia ranked 3,142 in the life expectancy of both male and female residents. See http://www.healthdata.org/sites/default/files/files/county_profiles/US/2015/County_Report_McDowell_County_West_Virginia.pdf,; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDowell_County,_West_Virginia
Males in McDowell County lived an average of 63.5 years and females lived an average of 71.5 years compared to the national average for life expectancy of 76.5 for males and 81.2 for females. Moreover, the average life expectancy in McDowell County declined by 3.2 years for males and 4.1 years for females between 1985 and 2013 compared to a national average for the same period of an increased life span of 5.5 years for men and 3.1 years for women…..
Then there’s the drug problem. In 2015, McDowell County had the highest rate of drug-induced deaths of any county in the U.S., with 141 deaths per 100,000 people. The rate for the U.S. as a whole is only 14.7 deaths per 100,000 people. (Same citation).
So back to my original point. There’s 99 problems there, and ATVs ain’t one of them. So why hassle ATV riders when they’re bringing money, jobs and fun into the local economy?
Again, ATVs are allowed on single lane roads in West Virginia, and are also allowed on two-lane roads, to get from one place they’re allowed to operate, to another place they’re allowed to operate, so long as it’s a distance of 10 miles or less, and so long as they operate on the shoulder, or as far as the right as possible, and under the speed of 25 mph. Counties and cities in West Virginia are granted the authority by the legislature to increase ATV freedoms. Other than interstate highways, they can authorize ATVs to use two lanes within their jurisdictions with no restrictions whatsoever. That would be what signage would refer to as being “ATV Friendly.”
That’s the law anyways. Whether or not law enforcement and prosecutors in any particular county care or not…. well that’s a different issue.