New Jersey DWI Law Does Not Require Police to Witness Actual Driving, as Arrest of Sleeping Man for DWI Demonstrates

Adriaen Brouwer (circa 1605/1606–1638) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe arrest of a man found sleeping in his car on a New Jersey road for alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) raises a rather obvious question:  can police arrest someone for DWI if they did not actually see the person driving? New Jersey’s DWI statute, which prohibits “operat[ing] a vehicle” while intoxicated or under the influence of illegal drugs, does not actually require an arresting officer, or anyone else, to witness a suspect driving. It does, however, require other evidence to establish that a person had been driving, or that he or she intended to drive and was about to do so, while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Police in North Plainfield, New Jersey reportedly responded to a report of someone sleeping in his car early one morning in late September 2014. Officers found the car parked on the side of a road. They claimed that they had to shout to wake the man up, and that he told them he thought he was in a parking lot. Two children were also reportedly in the car with the man. His blood alcohol content (BAC) was allegedly 0.13 percent, which resulted in charges of both DWI and child endangerment. The latter charge depends on the state’s ability to prove the former. Since no witnesses have claimed to have seen the man driving, this will depend on whether the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, based on the circumstances, that the man had operated the vehicle.

Mr. Uquillas-Tapia has several defenses to this situation.

One of the earliest cases addressing this issue, the Appellate Division’s 1952 decision in State v. Baumgartner, established that the state may prove sufficient facts to allow a judge or jury to make an inference that a defendant had operated his or her vehicle while under the influence. Police found the defendant asleep in his truck with his head over the steering wheel and claimed that they smelled alcohol. The truck had stopped near an intersection without a traffic light, in the street about six feet from the curb. The headlights and ignition were on, but the engine was not running. The defendant also ultimately admitted that he had been driving.

On the contrary, Mr. Uquillas-Tapia was asleep in his car on a residential street. Was he sleeping outside a friend’s home? Had he driven to that location under the influence? Did he intend to drive away from that spot while still under the influence of alcohol? This is probably the most difficult thing for the State to prove.

The New Jersey Supreme Court reached a different conclusion in 1973’s State v. Daly, finding that the state had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had been driving or intended to drive. Police arrested the defendant after finding him asleep in his car, with the engine running, shortly after 3 a.m. in a tavern parking lot. The defendant admitted at trial that he was intoxicated, but he testified that he had left the tavern and gone to his car just after midnight to “sleep it off.” He claimed that the cold weather woke him up, so he started the engine to run the heater. The court concluded that there was no evidence that the defendant had moved the vehicle since leaving the tavern, nor was there evidence that the defendant intended to drive until he sobered up.

If you have been arrested or charged with DWI, you should consult with a knowledgeable and skilled DWI attorney. At Levow & Associates, we have dedicated 100% of our law practice to New Jersey DWI defense. We are available to help you 24/7. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

How Does the State Prove “Intoxication” in New Jersey DWI Cases Involving Drugs Instead of Alcohol? New Jersey DWI Attorney, August 26, 2014

What Is the Current Status of the Alcotest Machine in New Jersey DWI Cases? New Jersey DWI Attorney, August 23, 2014

Second or Third DWI Convictions in New Jersey Do Not Always Result in Enhanced Penalties, New Jersey DWI Attorney, August 1, 2014

Photo credit: Adriaen Brouwer (circa 1605/1606–1638) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.