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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 12:17 am

Plowing legal ground

Prosecutors seek title to backhoe

 

Mike Eyer of Jacksonville dug himself a legal hole in the spring of 2017, when he started driving his backhoe home.

It began, Eyer recalls, when he got a call from a friend: I’ve got some concrete that’s just been poured but no concrete finisher available. Can you help? Eyer says he figured spreading concrete with a backhoe would be better than letting it sit, so he drove his seven-ton John Deere backhoe five miles to the jobsite. He was on his way home a few hours later when he got pulled over by a Jacksonville police officer, who arrested him for driving on a revoked license.

This had happened before.

In 2001, Jacksonville police stopped Eyer on South Main Street as he left the Zodiac Lounge on his backhoe – he said that he was hoping the bar would hire him to plow snow from its parking lot. He had no alcohol in his system, but Mothers Against Drunk Drivers had told police that Eyer, who had two DUI convictions and a revoked license, had been driving his backhoe around town. Eyer lost his case, with the Fourth District Appellate Court upholding a jury verdict, and so he was convicted of driving with a revoked license.

This time, it is more serious. In addition to charging Eyer with driving on a revoked license, prosecutors are trying to seize the backhoe, which is worth about $35,000, under state forfeiture laws. For now, at least, Eyer still has it, thanks to posting a $3,500 bond pending resolution of the forfeiture case.

Eyer, who got his third DUI conviction in 2010, acknowledges he may not come off as a sympathetic figure, given his previous conviction for driving a backhoe with a revoked license. “I know what it looks like,” he says. There is also the matter of driving a backhoe five miles instead of putting it on a trailer. He had a work driving permit that allowed him to drive until 6 p.m. Why not wait until the next day to drive his backhoe home instead of setting out after 7 p.m.?

Eyer says folks often drive backhoes five miles or further rather than trailer them. When he was 14, he says, he once drove his dad’s backhoe from Waverly to Auburn. After the cops seized his backhoe, he contacted the secretary of state and has an email to prove it: “The IL SOS, Office of the General Counsel, is uncertain why you have received this ticket or why your equipment was confiscated by the Police Department, as you stated,” writes Julie Phelps, a secretary in the secretary of state’s general counsel’s office. “We suggest that you contest this ticket in court.”

Eyer is doing exactly that with his driving-while-revoked citation. Henry Haupt, spokesman for the secretary of state, confirms that backhoes, like farm equipment, do not need license plates and operators don’t need driver’s licenses to drive them on public roads. The law, employing the term “temporarily,” appears to contemplate occasional forays onto public roads as opposed to heavy equipment being used as ordinary transportation. “I guess he (the police officer) thought I was driving that thing around for transportation,” Eyer says. “I certainly didn’t think I was breaking the law.”

Shouldn’t his prior conviction have convinced him not to get behind the wheel of his backhoe? Eyer blames his lawyer for losing that first case. “He screwed up the appeal on that,” he says.

Morgan County state’s attorney Gray Noll says he’s confident in his case. The law that allows heavy equipment to be driven on public roads sans license plates or driver’s licenses isn’t a blanket exemption, he says.

Eyer’s legal woes come as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the case of an Indiana man whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized after he pleaded guilty to selling a few grams of heroin to an undercover cop for $225, using his truck to transport the drugs. The nation’s highest court heard arguments in November, and there is wide agreement that justices appear sympathetic to the notion that confiscating property worth thousands of dollars for relatively minor offenses isn’t constitutional.

Craig Miller, who heads the civil division of the Morgan County state’s attorney’s office, calls Eyer’s case unique, but doesn’t think that taking a $35,000 backhoe for driving on a revoked license is unconstitutional. “(It’s not) a disproportionate penalty, based upon the driving record and criminal history of our particular defendant,” Miller says.

Eyer thinks otherwise.

“I can’t believe the government can say, ‘We’re going to take away your machine,’” he says.   

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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