The law behind driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey is more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Multiple court decisions interpreting the DWI statute have held that prosecutors do not have to provide direct evidence that a person was driving. They only need to prove that a person had both the intent and the opportunity to drive while impaired by alcohol. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division affirmed this view of the DWI statute in a February ruling. It denied the appeal of a defendant who was convicted after police found him sleeping in his car with the engine running. This is an important decision for both DWI lawyers and the general public.
New Jersey’s DWI statute establishes a two-part definition of the offense. The state must prove that a defendant (1) operated a vehicle (2) while impaired by drugs or alcohol. Prosecutors can prove the second point in several ways, including evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC) and eyewitness testimony from police about the defendant’s appearance and behavior. Much discussion of DWI defenses focuses on how the state proves impairment. Maybe the police failed to maintain the Alcotest device adequately, and the BAC evidence should be thrown out. Perhaps the officer who pulled a defendant over lacked a legal justification for the stop. Sometimes, however, defendants dispute the first element of the offense.
As the Appellate Division notes in its February decision, New Jersey courts have taken a broad view of what it means to “operate” a vehicle. In a 1987 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court stated that “a pragmatic definition of this term is necessary” in order to fulfill the purpose of the DWI statute, which is “to deal with the risk that intoxicated drivers will cause harm to themselves and to others.” The court found that intoxicated drivers can pose this sort of risk “even before [they] may have put [their] car in motion.” It cited a 1963 decision, in which it held that “a person may be “operating” a motor vehicle…even when the vehicle has not been moved.”