You may not have traffic lights, pedestrians and speed warnings to deal with when driving on private property, but that doesn't mean you can do whatever you like. It pays to familiarize yourself with the laws of your state concerning driving on private property to avoid getting hit with a ticket, or worse.
Definition of Private Property
Private property is property including real estate, buildings, land and other objects belonging to an individual who has exclusive rights over it. In other words, private property is anything owned by a person or group of persons other than the government. When it comes to driving on private property, the usual caveat is that the property must not be a public-access space, which means some laws that apply to public property also apply to privately owned spaces with a public right of way, such as a parking lot or parking garage.
Traffic Laws on Private Property
State motor vehicle laws specify the roadways on which they apply. For example, Connecticut makes reckless driving illegal on certain types of roads, including private roads with speed limit signs that have been put up following approval from the Office of the State Traffic Administration and at the expense of the owner of the road. However, some laws impose no such restrictions, such as driving without insurance or operating a vehicle under suspension. This means the police can enforce them on either public or private property. For example, Connecticut prohibits vehicle owners from driving without the legally required insurance, and does not limit its applicability to public roadways.
In Washington, officers can enforce traffic violations such as reckless driving, negligent driving, vehicular homicide and hit-and-run traffic collisions on private property. Additionally, officers in some states can enforce speed laws on private roads within a Home Owner Association, provided a majority of the HOA members has voted to approve enforcement. Some private communities can also do their own traffic law enforcement, such as the gated neighborhood Birch Bay Village in Washington's Whatcom County, where private security officers enforce traffic rules and write tickets.
Driving on Private Property Without a License
In all U.S. states, it is illegal to drive any motor vehicle on any highway unless you have a valid license. In general, unlicensed drivers can operate vehicles on private property, but this is where the definition of private property comes into play. If the property is open to the public such as a mall parking lot or parking garage owned by an individual or company, licensing laws can be enforced. If someone without a valid motor vehicle license drives on private property during the course of employment, this may be in breach of insurance requirements.
The same law applies to minors driving on private property. Minors without a state-required driver's license can drive vehicles and dirt bikes on private property with no public access, such as ranches and other rural private property, provided they have the consent of the property owner. However, if an unlicensed driver causes a serious injury or death while driving, the property owners – or parents or guardians if the driver is a minor – could be held liable for injuries and damages.
DUI on Private Property
Most U.S. states permit a police officer to enforce drunk driving laws on any property, public or private, because driving drunk is so inherently dangerous. For example, Mississippi’s DUI law says it’s unlawful to drive under the influence within the state. Likewise, Kentucky law states that drunk driving is illegal anywhere in the state. In other states, the law on DUI is more broadly worded, but the courts have interpreted the laws to apply to private property.
Some state traffic laws don't apply to driving on private property, but drivers can still be charged with serious traffic violations, such as reckless driving, negligent driving and DUI.
- Cornell Law School: private property
- JUSTIA: 2011 Connecticut Code Title 14 Chapter 248 Sec. 14-222
- Connecticut General Assembly: Connecticut Code Title 14 Chapter 248 Sec. 14-213b
- Mississippi Office of Highway Safety: Mississippi Code Title 63
- Kentucky Legislature: Kentucky Revised Statutes: DUI
- JUSTIA: Flanders v. State
- Michigan Legislature: Michigan Vehicle Code Section 257.625
- Idaho Legislature: Idaho Code Section 18-8004
- Ted A. Greve & Associates: Third Party Liability and Negligent Entrustment