Just by its name “drunk driving” charges lead most people to imagine that two things had to happen to lead to an arrest: 1) that someone was drunk; and 2) that someone was driving. However, given the way most state laws have been written this second thing isn’t necessarily true and people can and are arrested and charged despite the fact that they were never actually spotted driving. To find out more about how this happens, keep reading.
One high-profile example of a person being charged with drunk driving despite never actually driving occurred recently in Florida. In that case, a man’s roommate complained about his loud music one evening. The man decided to go sit in his car and listen to the songs, keys in the ignition, though the vehicle itself never moved. Despite this, the man was eventually arrested after suspicious officers administered a field sobriety test.
Many people are understandably confused about how someone who isn’t driving could be busted for a DUI/DWI. So how do these arrests happen in the first place? The issue boils down to one about the specific language of the law. In nearly every state in the country, the laws say that to be arrested for driving drunk a person must either be found operating a vehicle or in “physical control” of a vehicle.
In the example from Florida discussed above, the man who was arrested may not have been operating the car, but he was in physical control of it. He was sitting in the driver’s seat, had the keys in the ignition listening to music and could have, if he had wanted, driven at any moment.
The concept of physical control says that any person who is on or in a vehicle and has the potential to operate it can be arrested and charged with drunk driving. These arrests can occur regardless of whether the person ever actually operated the vehicle or even intended to operate the vehicle. After all, a person merely listening to the radio or turning on the heat and air may have had no intention of driving anywhere, but this lack of intention can’t be used as a shield to an arrest.
In Minnesota, the law mirrors those laws around the country. Minnesota courts have held that for a driver to be found in “physical control” of a vehicle that driver would need to be able, without much difficulty, to start the car and become a source of danger to themselves or others.
Courts have found that simply having the keys in the ignition, even if the driver was asleep at the time, satisfies this definition. In other cases, a driver whose keys were not in the ignition, but instead resting in the center console, was sufficient to create the physical control necessary to justify a drunk driving arrest.