New Jersey’s law on driving while intoxicated (DWI) prohibits “operat[ing] a motor vehicle while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or greater. Courts have addressed multiple challenges to the definition of “operate” under this statute. New Jersey courts have held that the key issue is a defendant’s intent to drive, and the Legislature’s objective of preventing drunk driving requires a broad definition of “operate.” The New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed these issues in a recent decision, State v. Cancelosi, in which a defendant challenged the state’s proof that he “operated” his vehicle.
The Appellate Division’s ruling in Cancelosi drew heavily on the Law Division’s ruling affirming the defendant’s conviction. The Law Division judge cited multiple cases addressing the definition of “operating” a vehicle under the DWI statute. Intent to drive is at the center of the “inquiry into operation,” according to several New Jersey Supreme Court rulings. In 1973, State v. Daly held that “evidence of intent to drive or move the vehicle” can prove the “operate” element of the statute. The court held in 1987’s State v. Tischio that “a drunk driver offends the law when he evinces an intent to drive his car.” It also held in that case that “a narrow or literal interpretation would frustrate the fundamental regulatory goals underlying New Jersey’s drunk-driving laws.”
A 1963 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Sweeney, held that the state does not necessarily have to prove any movement by the vehicle. In that case, police found the defendant in a vehicle on the side of a public road with the engine running. Since then, courts have found that circumstantial evidence is admissible to prove that a defendant “operated” a vehicle. The Appellate Division’s 2005 ruling in State v. Ebert stated that circumstantial evidence may include “observation of the defendant in or out of the vehicle under circumstances indicating that the defendant had been driving while intoxicated.”