New Jersey Driver Found Sleeping in His Car Acquitted of DWI After Judge Finds Prosecutors Failed to Prove He Intended to Drive

In order to convict someone of driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, prosecutors do not necessarily have to provide direct evidence that the defendant was driving a car. This state’s DWI law, as interpreted by the courts, only requires proof that a defendant had control of a vehicle and had recently driven or intended to drive. A recent DWI trial involved a driver found sleeping in his car with the engine running. A municipal judge acquitted him of DWI after finding that the state had failed to prove that the defendant had driven the vehicle to that location himself, or that he intended to drive the vehicle.

The New Jersey DWI statute makes it a traffic offense to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or various drugs. Many DWI arrests begin with a traffic stop, in which a police officer witnesses a driver operating a vehicle in a way that leads them to suspect DWI. This is far from the only way an officer can develop reasonable suspicion of DWI, however. Some situations may present a reasonable inference that an individual has recently driven their vehicle while intoxicated, such as when an officer responds to the scene of a recent auto accident and observes the driver’s behavior.

The present case involved a situation in which the arresting officer did not witness the defendant driving, and also the defendant was arguably doing something responsible:  waiting to sober up before driving. In this particular case, the defendant was waiting in his vehicle with the engine running. In January 2016, the arresting officer found the defendant asleep in his car, which was parked outside an Elks Lodge. The officer arrested the defendant, who was later charged with DWI.

At trial in the Madison Joint Municipal Court, the defendant cited a 1973 decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Daly, which involved very similar facts. An officer found the Daly defendant asleep in his car, which was parked in a tavern parking lot with the engine running but the headlights turned off. The defendant admitted to being intoxicated but claimed that he knew he was unable to drive and decided to “sleep it off” in his car. He claimed that the cold weather had woken him up, so he had started the engine in order to run the heater.

Both the municipal court and the Law Division convicted the Daly defendant of DWI. The Appellate Division reversed the conviction, finding that prosecutors had not provided evidence “from which any such intent [to drive] could be inferred beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Supreme Court affirmed the reversal. It noted that the tavern where the car was parked was required by law to close at 2:00 a.m. and that no evidence suggested that it had not closed at that time. The officer arrested the defendant at about 3:20 a.m., which the court took to mean the defendant had been in his car, without driving it, for more than an hour.

In the current case, the judge acquitted the defendant of DWI. He ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove that the defendant had “operated” the vehicle within the meaning of the DWI statute. Prosecutors had not presented sufficient evidence that the defendant drove the vehicle to the Elks Lodge while intoxicated, or that he intended to drive at the time of his arrest.

A DWI conviction in New Jersey can have a significant impact on your life, which is why you should seek the assistance of Evan Levow, an experienced and skilled DWI attorney, to defend you against the state’s charges. Contact us online or at (877) 593-1717 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

Dashcam Videos from New Jersey Police Vehicles Are Public Record, According to Appellate Division Ruling, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 20, 2016

New Jersey Court Rejects “Pathological Intoxication” Defense in DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 1, 2016

Conditional Guilty Plea Required in New Jersey DWI Cases to Preserve Certain Issues for Appeal, According to Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 15, 2016

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