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People v. Lechleitner: The “Operating” in Operating While Intoxicated

January 1, 2010 DUI/OWI/DWI

In the case of People v. Lechleitner, the Court of Appeals focuses on the definition of “operate” in operating while intoxicated.

Facts of the Case

The Defendant Lechleitner drove with a blood alcohol content of .12. While he was driving, he lost control and stopped his vehicle. The truck was stopped in the middle of two lanes of the freeway. He turned off his headlights but put on his flashers. He opened the door of the truck to start pushing the car with his leg.

A second car swerved out of the way, and then pulled over on the side of the road. A third car had to swerve to miss the Defendant’s truck and then struck the second car, killing a passenger in the second car.

Following a jury trial, the Defendant was convicted of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance and causing death.

On Appeal

The Defendant argued that he had was not operating his car at the time of the accident.

The trial court had ruled that the Defendant had put his vehicle in a position of significant risk of collision with another vehicle. The trial court ruled a person is responsible for that vehicle until the vehicle is returned to a position of no risk. The definition relied upon by the trial Court came from the case of People v. Wood. The Defendant agreed the trial court applied the correct definition from that case.

In People v. Wood, the Court of Appeals stated that “operating” must be defined in terms of the danger the OWI statute seeks to prevent: The collision of a vehicle being operated by a person under the influence of intoxicating liquor with other persons or property. Once a person using a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle has put the vehicle in motion, or in a position posing a significant risk of causing a collision, such a person continues to operate it until the vehicle is returned to a position posing no such risk.

Defendant argued that the definition of operating from People v. Wood was outdated. The Defendant further argued the definition of operate should mean to “cause to function,” which is the definition from the dictionary.

The Court of Appeals did not agree with that argument, ruling it did not take into account the statutory interpretation that the Court in Wood used in creating the definition of operation. The Court reaffirmed the definition of operation from Wood.

Takeaways from the Case

The Court of Appeals in this case declined an opportunity to tone down the “significant risk of collision” language developed by the Wood Court. This expansion of the “operation” definition ensured the OWI laws would apply to a larger number of motorists who drove drunk but may not have been in actual physical control of the vehicle.

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Sam Bernstein is a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48108

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