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Under Ohio roadway law, what is a livestock trailer?

Appellate Court decides that a livestock trailer is “farm machinery”  under Ohio law

Why does it matter?  A “motor vehicle” must display a license plate according to Ohio Revised Code Section 4503.21(A), but “farm machinery” is exempt from the requirement.  

When a farmer pulling a trailer loaded with cattle in Wayne County did not have a license plate on the trailer, a state trooper cited him for violating ORC 4503.21(A).  The farmer argued that the trailer did not require a license plate because it was  exempt as “farm machinery.”   The municipal court judge disagreed because the trailer fits within the definition of “motor vehicle.”  The court found the farmer guilty of a minor misdemeanor.   But a later opinion issued by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the judge’s decision and held that the livestock trailer is “farm machinery” that is exempt from Ohio’s license plate requirements.

Confusing?  As with many Ohio laws relating to agriculture, the statute itself is likely responsible for the confusion. The license plate law states in Ohio Revised Code Section 4503.21 that:

  • “(A) No person who is the owner or operator of a motor vehicle shall fail to display in plain view on the front and rear of the motor vehicle the distinctive number and registration mark . . . except that . . . the owner or operator of a motorcycle, motorized bicycle, manufactured home, mobile home, trailer, or semitrailer shall display on the rear only. . .” [emphasis added]

In conclusion, a “trailer” must have a rear license plate.  The law defines a “trailer” in Ohio Revised Code Section 4501(M), which includes, among other things:

  • ” . . . a vehicle used to transport agricultural produce or agricultural production materials between a local place of storage or supply and the farm when drawn or towed on a public road or highway at a speed greater than twenty-five miles per hour . . .”

And so it appears that a trailer transporting livestock to a sale in Wayne County should have displayed a rear license plate.    Not so, said the court, because the law also states in the definition of “motor vehicle” that the definition does not include “farm machinery.”  If a trailer transporting livestock fits within the definition of “farm machinery,” then it is not a motor vehicle that requires a license plate, the court reasoned.  Which brings us to the definition of “farm machinery” in ORC 4503.01(U); that definition begins:

  • “ ‘Farm machinery’ means all machines and tools that are used in the production, harvesting, and care of farm products, and includes trailers that are used to transport agricultural produce or agricultural production materials between a local place of storage or supply and the farm . . . [emphasis added] 

Hence, the confusion–two similar references to trailers used for agricultural purposes, but with different outcomes.   The appellate focused on the “farm machinery” definition to determine the outcome of the case, and stated:

  • “We conclude that the cattle Mr. Besancon was hauling were “agricultural produce” under Section 4501.01(U) because they were the progeny of livestock animals. We further conclude that the auction house is a “place of . . . supply” under that section because it is a location at which goods are offered for sale at various prices. A magistrate found that Mr. Besancon was using the livestock trailer to transport cattle to an auction house. Mr. Besancon, therefore, was using it to transport agricultural produce between a local place of supply and his farm. Accordingly, it was farm machinery under Section 4501.01(U).”

The impact of the Ninth District court’s decision could extend beyond the license plate law.  Many other highway and traffic laws include mention of “farm machinery” and utilize the same definition for “farm machinery” found in ORC 4501.01(U).  The Besancon case provides other courts, especially those in northeast Ohio’s ninth appellate district, a basis for sorting through the muddled treatment of agriculture in Ohio roadway laws.

See State v. Besancon, 2010-Ohio-2147, here.

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