The idea that someone could be charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) when their vehicle isn’t moving might seem counterintuitive. Candidly, it might strike the average person as completely preposterous.
For the record, New Jersey law considers someone to be intoxicated when their blood alcohol content (BAC) level registers higher than .08 percent. For some individuals, that’s as little as a couple of quick beers. DWI laws also include intoxication based on drug use, prescription or not.
Meanwhile, most motor vehicle operator have no idea of the consequences they could face if they’re intoxicated, and their vehicle is at a dead standstill. And – yes, that includes someone who’s parked their car and fallen asleep behind the wheel.
The section of the law that deals with Driving while Intoxicated appears at NJSA 39:4-50. The statute describes the penalties for impaired driving, while first defining what it means to be driving while intoxicated as follows:
39:4-50. (a) A person who operates a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug, or operates a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more by weight of alcohol in the defendant’s blood or permits another person who is under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug to operate a motor vehicle the person owns or which is in the person’s custody or control or permits another to operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more by weight of alcohol in the defendant’s blood…
NJ Case Law on DWI Charges When Vehicle is Parked
A couple of years ago, the New Jersey Appellate Division decided the matter of State v. Thompson. One of the issues presented to the judges concerned what constitutes operation of a motor vehicle.
According to the facts of the case, someone requested that police come to the scene of a local convenience store. When they arrived, law enforcement officers found the defendant sleeping in his car in the store’s parking lot. The incident occurred in the fall of 2017, at approximately 10:30 pm.
One of the first things the responding officers noticed was that the car engine was still running even though the defendant was asleep. The police also observed a half-eaten sandwich and prescription bottles on the passenger front seat.
When the officers woke up the defendant and noticed he smelled of alcohol. Subsequently, the defendant admitted he’d had a few drinks.
The police officers proceeded to perform field sobriety tests and determined the individual was unable to complete them to satisfaction. After he was arrested, the individual acknowledged that in addition to drinking, he’d taken medicine prescribed to him. These included Methadone, Hydrocodone, Xanax, and Cymbalta.
When the Appellate Court reviewed the case, they were satisfied there was sufficient evidence to conclude the defendant was intoxicated when he was found sleeping behind the wheel of his parked car. But – if the car was parked, how could he be accused of operating the vehicle while intoxicated?
Operation of a Motor Vehicle While Intoxicated
For starters, the appeals court pointed out that previous court rulings have made a distinction between “driving” and operation of a vehicle. The latter has a broader meaning in the law.
The New Jersey Supreme Court considered the issue in State v. Tischio as far back as 1987, saying that a “defendant’s intent to operate a motor vehicle can constitute ‘operation” within the meaning of the statute.” The courts have also concluded that someone apparently intoxicated who attempts to put a key in the car ignition can be considered operating a motor vehicle.
Additionally, the courts have found that a person can be convicted of drunk driving if they staggered out a tavern and walked towards their car to insert the key into the ignition.
It goes even further that one might expect when it comes to DWI charges. For example, the appeals court agreed with a lower court when it came to another interesting fact pattern. In that case, the defendant was intoxicated and just looking for her vehicle in a restaurant parking lot.
As far as the defendant in the Thompson case, the court found that an “intoxicated and sleeping defendant behind the wheel of a motor vehicle with the engine running is operating the motor vehicle.”
Bottom line? It doesn’t matter if the vehicle was observed in motion. What counts is the possibility of motion.
Other subsequent unpublished New Jersey Appellate decisions have considered similar scenarios. In State v. Bianco, the defendant admitted he drank some scotches at a golf outing and decided to take a rest by parking at a closed gas station. He too, fell asleep behind the wheel, with the car running and headlights on. The courts found this constituted operation of the motor vehicle.
Meanwhile, another defendant fell asleep in the driver’s seat of his car that he parked at an intersection. The Appellate Division decided in the unpublished opinion of State v. Speranza, that this too amounted to vehicle operation.
At the Law Offices of Beninato & Matrafajlo Attorneys at Law, LLC , we regularly appear in court on behalf of clients charged with driving while intoxicated. DWI cases can come with severe consequences.
If you have been accused of driving while under the influence, our office can help you. Please call use at 908-378-9126 to schedule an appointment. There is no cost for our initial consultation.