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Herman: Prosecutors tee up question for Paxton

Austin American-Statesman logo Austin American-Statesman 10/17/2020 Ken Herman
a motorcycle is parked in front of a house: Golf cart traffic is heavy during a March parade in Sun City Texas. State Attorney General Ken Paxton has been asked for an official opinion on whether driver’s licenses are required to operate golf carts on public streets where they are legal. [Stephen Spillman/for Statesman] © Stephen Spillman Golf cart traffic is heavy during a March parade in Sun City Texas. State Attorney General Ken Paxton has been asked for an official opinion on whether driver’s licenses are required to operate golf carts on public streets where they are legal. [Stephen Spillman/for Statesman]

As if Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton doesn't have enough on his plate — what with facing a pending indictment and a possible future one — he now has to wrestle with something else thrown his way by prosecutors.

This one, via a pair of Montgomery County crime fighters, could be a matter of lives and deaths.

The question is simple: What's the deal with golf carts on the streets?

Montgomery County District Attorney Brett W. Ligon and Montgomery County Attorney B.D. Griffin have asked for the AG's official opinion on whether one needs a driver's license to operate a golf cart on a public street on which they're legal in Texas.

This is unrelated to the kerfuffle I recently wrote about concerning whether it's legal to operate three-wheeled eTuks in the Great State of Texas. Paxton, via an opinion request, also was dragged into that one.

In this case, we all know what Ligon and Griffin are talking about. You've seen golf carts on the street. Sometimes we can tell if the occupants are headed to the golf course, perhaps to work on their putting, or just puttering around town. In general, plaid shorts indicate a bona fide trip to the golf course.

a group of people riding on the back of a truck: Adults driving golf carts on public streets seems safe. But what about when children are driving them? [Stephen Spillman/for Statesman] © Stephen Spillman Adults driving golf carts on public streets seems safe. But what about when children are driving them? [Stephen Spillman/for Statesman]

But, as Ligon and Griffin recount for Paxton in the opinion request, the Texas Legislature's attempts to sort all this out have left confusion as to whether golf cart drivers need a driver's license. It is believed this is the only time in the history of Texas that something our legislators did left confusion.

(To be clear here, golf cart drivers do not need a license to operate a driver or any other club in their bag.)

Here's the current state of confusion, as related by prosecutors Ligon and Griffin.

As of September 2009, the Legislature made it legal to drive golf carts on public streets in three locations: "a master-planned community ... that has in place a uniform set of restrictive covenants" and an approved plat; a beach; and "a public highway" with a speed limit not greater than 35 mph if operated during daytime "not more than two miles from the location where the golf cart is usually parked; and for transportation to or from a golf course."

Clear enough, I guess. The law also lets municipalities, at their discretion, allow golf carts on all roads whose speed limits are 35 mph or less.

Back to the Montgomery County officials:

"Public officials have since expressed conflicting opinions as to whether a driver's license is necessary to operate a golf cart on streets" delineated in the law.

"Some local officials have argued that no license is required to operate a golf cart in the designated locations, while a representative of the Texas Department of Public Safety informed a reporter in 2013 that 'a driver's license is required to operate a golf cart on a publicly maintained roadway.' "

Here's where a decision needs to be made on what a "motor vehicle" is. I know what a motor vehicle is. You know what a motor vehicle is. Now Paxton must figure it out.

The opinion request cites a state law that says "motor vehicle means a self-propelled vehicle or a vehicle that is propelled by electric power from overhead trolley wires." (Extra points for you if your definition of motor vehicle included the phrase "overhead trolley wires.")

State law also says electric bicycles and "electric personal assistance mobility devices," though they are vehicles with motors, are not motor vehicles.

Say the Montgomery County officials: "A golf cart is a self-propelled vehicle and is not listed among the statutory exceptions, hence it is a 'motor vehicle' which cannot be operated on a public street without a driver's license under (state law.)"

And this matters why?

"If a driver's license is not required when operating a golf cart upon a public street, children would be permitted to drive them on busy streets — a situation which a police spokesman described as 'extremely dangerous,' " they told Paxton, citing a 2019 East Texas TV story headlined, "Tyler police crack down on golf cart use on public roads."

Sure enough, Don Martin, spokesman for the Tyler cops, told the TV station that folks in golf course communities were complaining "that too many children were observed in golf carts; going to pools, going to a friend's house, just driving the streets."

Based on that and the law, the Montgomery County officials said, "It is respectfully suggested that the attorney general issue an opinion concluding that a driver's license is required to lawfully operate a golf cart on a publicly maintained street."

Griffin and Mike Holley, who is Ligon's first assistant in the Montgomery County DA's shop, told me they turned to Paxton to clarify this after they fielded queries from law enforcement officials in their county north of Houston — an area with lots of master-planned communities in which golf carts are street legal.

Holley assured me there is no intent to pack our existing prisons with golf cart scofflaws.

"We'll build a separate golf cart prison," he said. "But they'll be allowed to drive golf carts at those prisons."

Yes, those must be the country club prisons we used to hear so much about.

Griffin noted it usually takes five or six months to get an AG's opinion. I noted that we don't know if Paxton will still be AG by then because he has some "issues."

"Yes, he does," Griffin said. "I try to keep my name out of the paper."

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