Appeals court rejects tractor exemption claim

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If you don’t have a driver’s license and are riding a tractor on the roadway, you better make sure it’s just to or from working the fields.

Otherwise, you are liable to be arrested, as was the case with Sean Stephen Chehardy Sr. six years ago, as he drove his blue 2000 farm tractor south on Griffin Road, about 100 feet south of Creekview Drive West.

He was arrested that day in Nov. 2015 on a charge of driving with a suspended license, one of no fewer than seven such citations he had been slapped with over the previous two decades.

Chehardy, however, believed this time he had been wrongly arrested and jailed, and so the 56-year-old Wewahitchka man, as represented by attorney Marie Mattox, sued Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison and Deputy Brian Smith for what he said was false imprisonment and negligence.

Circuit Judge Shonna Young Gay dismissed the case when it came before her in 2019, but Chehardy continued to pursue his legal avenues, up to and including the First District Court of Appeal.

On March 11, the three-judge panel unanimously agreed the dismissal was proper. In their ruling, the judges began by outlining the history of the case.

“(Chehardy) was returning home on his farm tractor, which he had just refueled at a nearby gas station, when he called 911 to report that a neighbor was ‘driving in circles’ in his front yard ‘spinning his tires,’” they wrote.

“The neighbor fled, but the responding police officer - who saw Chehardy operating his farm tractor on the roadway - arrested him for driving with a suspended license,” the judges wrote.

Cherhardy contested the felony citation, claiming it was invalid due to a statutory exemption for the temporary operation of “farm tractors” on Florida roadways. “The charges escalated but all were later dropped,” wrote the appeals court justices.

After Chehardy sued Harrison and Smith for false arrest/imprisonment and negligence, “both defendants moved to dismiss the civil action, which the trial court granted, concluding that driving a farm tractor on a state roadway to refuel it was not a permissible use.”

The appeals court judges had to weigh whether Chehardy was entitled to Florida’s “farm tractor” exemption, or whether the officer had probable cause to make the arrest.

The ruling noted the statute, which excepts specified persons “from obtaining a driver license (including) any person while driving or operating any road machine, farm tractor, or implement of husbandry temporarily operated or moved on a highway.

“Farm tractors are principally used as agricultural machines and not as modes of transportation,” they wrote. “The exemption thereby recognizes that farm tractors may necessarily have to traverse public roadways from time to time and that their operators may not always have a driver’s license.

“At first glance, Chehardy’s arrest would seem to be unlawful based on the language of the exemption because he was temporarily operating his farm tractor on a highway, which falls squarely within the statute’s language,” the judges wrote.

But, they went on to say, “farm tractor” is defined as a motor vehicle “operated principally on a farm, grove, or orchard in agricultural or horticultural pursuits and that is operated on the roads of this state only incidentally for transportation between the owner’s or operator’s headquarters and the farm, grove, or orchard or between one farm, grove, or orchard and another.”

The justices noted that “the genesis of the exemption appears to be based, at least in part, on the need for migrant farm laborers to operate farm tractors without a driver’s license.”

Chehardy’s attorney relied mainly on a subsection of the statute related to a 1938 Florida Supreme Court case in which a tractor operator was jailed because the tractor lacked a proper license tag.

“The court concluded that if the tractor were configured to haul merchandise, it would be considered a truck and be subject to licensure; but, by the following language, the court excepted the types of limited uses contained in the ‘farm tractor’ exemption,” the appeals court judges wrote.

The 1938 ruling concluded that if a tractor was being operated on the highways merely as a means of passage to and from a field, and that their loads were to be used for crop producing purposes, for very short distances in passing to and from the owner’s home or farm, then the driver would be exempted, provided their use was “not unduly injurious to the roadway or dangerous to the lawful users of the highways.”

However, the appeals court judges said the exemption did not apply, since Chehardy was not driving on a roadway between his home and his farm.

“Because he was driving from and to his home/headquarters to refuel his farm tractor, he was operating a ‘motor vehicle’ subject to restrictions such as requiring a license (there is no allegation that the gas station happened to be an intermediate stop on an otherwise permissible route under the statute),” they wrote.

“We note how easy it might be to read the exemption statute in isolation and believe that temporarily driving a farm tractor on a Florida roadway is lawful,” they wrote. “The statutory definition of ‘farm tractor’ is narrow and makes no accommodation for trips to refuel a farm owner’s fleet, perhaps because gas stations or fuel oil facilities are generally few and far between in rural Florida.

“The specter of slow-moving and potentially dangerous farm tractors on state roads driven by unlicensed farm hands for many miles to gas stations likely explains, at least in part, the statute’s temporary/incidental use limitations,” they noted.

“Chehardy’s one-mile trip to refuel his farm tractor (does) not dovetail with what the law permits, so dismissal of his civil lawsuit on this basis was proper,” the judges concluded.

Harrison said the cost of defending the suit is covered by the Florida Sheriffs Risk Management Fund. He said his attorneys have advised that the decision likely is the end of the road for this particular suit.

“I am glad the decision was made and the appeals court affirmed the original decision,” he said. “We felt we were in the right with the original charge.

“He brought a frivolous lawsuit because he had an attorney encouraging himself to do so,” Harrison said. “Ultimately the outcome was what we suspected. The civil lawsuit ended exactly like what it should have.”

This article originally appeared on The Star: Appeals court rejects tractor exemption claim

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