At first glance, the terms “driving under the influence,” “driving while impaired,” or “driving while intoxicated” simply means that a driver actually needs to be driving a motor vehicle in order to be charged with a DUI or DWI. This, however, is the cause of much confusion in Minnesota and many other states, as this is not always the case.
A driver may be convicted of DWI under Minnesota law if he or she operates, drives, or is in physical control of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, a controlled substance, or a hazardous substance. While the terms “drive” and “operate” are fairly direct and easy to understand, the term “physical control” is a different matter entirely.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has interpreted the concept of physical control to include conduct and a variety of activities beyond the actually driving a motor vehicle. This means that an individual does not necessarily have to be driving to be considered in physical control of a vehicle.
As surprising as it may seem, a person may be cited for DWI for entering the vehicle and sleeping in either the front or back seat of a parked car. Even when unconscious and with the engine off and the keys in his or her pocket, an individual may be considered to be in physical control of the car. In a previous case, a motorist from Minnesota was found to be in physical control of her vehicle when she was standing behind the vehicle, with the key in the ignition and the engine running, with a flat tire, and no one else present.
If a person has control of, has access to, or is in possession of the car keys and can turn the vehicle’s engine on at any point or without much difficulty, he or she may be considered to be in physical control of the vehicle. Although a law enforcement official must be able to present additional evidence that shows that the driver and the vehicle may potentially be a source of danger, the location of the keys may be an important factor.
In theory, this very broad legal interpretation of the term “physical control” aims to have a far-reaching effect and discourage intoxicated persons from even thinking about interacting with their vehicle—except as a passenger. In order to prevent a physical control DWI citation, the best plan of action would be to plan ahead and give your keys to a trusted family member or friend and ask them to drive you home. Otherwise, stay away from your vehicle at all costs and call for a cab instead.
Minnesota laws give law enforcement officials discretion when it comes to arresting drivers for DWI. Whether or not a person is in physical control of a vehicle can be a fact-specific question, and it would be wise to consult with a lawyer if you face a possible DWI charge.