One alternative to dreading Michigan’s cold and snowy winters is finding ways to get out and enjoy them. That was what Kevin Willcome of Ottawa County had in mind when he, his parents and some friends went out snowmobiling one Sunday afternoon last February. What he did not expect was to run afoul of the law, much less find himself charged for allegedly committing a crime.

Shortly after Willcome and his companions arrived at the empty public school lot where they decided to ride, an officer with the Department of Natural Resources pulled up in a truck and asked them to stop. The area was a common spot for the activity, as indicated by worn-in tracks in the snow. Willcome thought they were within the law, on public property and traveling safely, far from neighbors.

“He asked us why he was stopping us and none of us could figure out why,” said Willcome.

The officer asked for identification. Only half the group had ID, as Michigan does not require a license to operate a snowmobile and drivers who take a safety course can be as young as 12 years old. Those without ID, including Willcome, gave their names and addresses.

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The DNR officer said he got a complaint that a neighbor thought they were trespassing on private property. The group did travel through some back roads to get to the school lot, but told the officer that they were careful to stay well within the public right of way.

A county sheriff’s deputy arrived. The officers were offering little information about what the group did wrong but allowed Willcome’s father and friend to leave to retrieve a trailer for the snowmobiles. When they returned, the group continued to wait in the cold for what would be a total of an hour and a half. Finally, the officers handed Willcome a ticket, saying he needed to appear in court.

Willcome hired an attorney and it was only in court that he realized how serious the situation was. He was charged with a misdemeanor for driving a snowmobile while his driver’s license was suspended. Under Public Act 451, he faced a $500 fine or 90 days in jail. He was dumbfounded.

“I’ve been riding snowmobiles since I was 12 years old, over 15 years ago. I took the snowmobile safety class. I didn’t need a license at 12. I didn’t need one now, but now I guess I did,” said Willcome, who couldn’t imagine how the status of his license to drive a car would have anything to do with operating a snowmobile, which does not require a license of any kind.

Willcome had come full throttle against a pattern in Michigan’s legal system: Hundreds of laws allow people to be prosecuted for things that are not obviously illegal, even if someone does not intend to break the law. Willcome said he had no idea he was committing a crime, let alone intending to commit one. His lawyer helped him plead the charge down to a civil infraction.

“I work 60 hours a week and I was worried by having a crime on my record it was going to delay the reinstatement of my license even longer,” said Willcome. He added that he had to move back in with his parents so they could drive him to and from work. He bought the snowmobile because he knew he couldn’t drive a car but used it mostly for recreation and emergencies.

“After court, I went back and eventually found the law on the DNR website but it did take me some time,” said Willcome.

According to recent Mackinac Center policy brief, 59 percent of the state’s 1,893 criminal misdemeanor laws fail to specify whether prosecution requires criminal intent. Under those laws, courts may apply “strict liability,” meaning a person who never intended to break a law can be convicted. As Willcome discovered, many of these involve behavior that is not obviously a crime.

As he also learned, such laws place an individual at the mercy of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges, who have wide discretion in how far to take a particular matter. In another jurisdiction, the outcome could have been different.

As Willcome feared, had he been convicted of a crime, his driver’s license could have been suspended for an indefinite time. He would have a permanent criminal record, something he might have to divulge on job, school or credit applications. While this particular defendant was allowed to accept responsibility for a civil infraction, he was still stung by more than $500 for the fine and legal fees.

“I’d like the rules to be laid out. It this is going to be a rule, then it needs to be made known to the public. I would not have bought the snowmobile if I knew driving it was illegal,” said Willcome.

His attorney, Jason Barrix, understood why his client would not have known what he did was a crime.

“The fact that a child or that a person never licensed would be able to drive a snowmobile …(but not allow someone) suspended from driving on the road makes no sense. The motor vehicle code is designed for vehicles on the road, not off road,” said Barrix.

The Department of Natural Resources says it has no control or power to change the law. Lt. Gerald Thayer of the division that regulates Ottawa County said the law has been in effect for at least 12 years and that when new rules emerge, the DNR usually doesn’t enforce them right away to give the public time to learn about them.

“I do feel bad about some of the folks who get arrested and don’t know the law, but if someone is going to participate in any sport such as snowmobiling it would be prudent of them to reference the guide and know the regulations,” said Thayer. He said DNR officers have discretion as to who gets a warning or ticket, and that they put much thought into their decision.

Michigan lawmakers are considering two bills that could have an impact on cases like Willcome’s. However, the legislation appears to be stalled in the Senate Judiciary committee, chaired by Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge).


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