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People v. Wood: Is It Drunk Driving When the Driver is Asleep and the Car Isn’t Moving?

February 1, 2010 DUI/OWI/DWI

The Court of Appeals in People v. Wood focuses on the definition of “operate” in an operating while intoxicated charge. What does it mean to operate a vehicle? A person must of course be operating a vehicle before they could be convicted of a DUI. The starting point for each case is whether a person operated.

Most of the times this is pretty obvious. The police officer sees a person driving down the road and pulls them over. No question there. However, what about when the situation is less clear?

When operation is at issue your criminal defense attorney should fully explore whether there is a challenge based on operation.

The Case Facts of People v. Wood

Mr. Wood was found unconscious by the police in his vehicle at a fast food drive-through in Howell.  Mr. Wood was slumped over the steering wheel. The vehicle was running, the gear was in drive, and his foot was on the brake pedal.

In the trial court, Mr. Wood moved to suppress the field sobriety tests and marijuana that was found. The court suppressed the evidence on the grounds the police did not see Mr. Wood operate the vehicle, and therefore did not have probable cause to arrest.

On Appeal

The question for the Court of Appeals was whether Mr. Wood was operating his vehicle. The Court reasoned that the police could have made an arrest if Mr. Wood was operating the vehicle at the time he was found. There had been case law stating that sleeping people seldom operate anything. Therefore, the Court found a way around that language, by ruling this:

“Operating” should 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 alcohol or drugs with other persons or property.

Here is what the Court ruled: 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. This is now under the definition of operating for operating while intoxicated charges.

This is how the Court got around the sleeping person issue. The Court will then look to see the position of the vehicle and what risk it poses for other people, and whether the person was in the act of driving but fell asleep or unconscious before reaching their destination.

The Court therefore ruled that Mr. Wood’s vehicle posed a significant risk of collision when it was running, with his foot on the brake, at the drive-through lane of a fast food restaurant. The car could easily have been put in motion had Mr. Wood’s fut slipped off the brake pedal.

The Takeaway from this Case

In an OWI case, a person operates a vehicle when the person drives the vehicle or is an actual physical control of the vehicle. However, a person asleep in the vehicle, while not driving or in actual physical control, may still be convicted of OWI if the car poses a significant risk of collision with other vehicles.

Nevertheless, there are situations where a person may be in a vehicle, while intoxicated, but not operating the vehicle. The situations may be increasingly rare but do exist. It would be a question of fact – best left to a jury and not a judge to make. We have seen the Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court will likely be unforgiving on the topic. However, a jury might be sympathetic to a defendant they believe did not pose a danger.

Operating a Vehicle for OWI

The definition of operating a vehicle is broad for the purposes of operating while intoxicated. At a starting point for an OWI, a person must be operating a vehicle. A person could have a blood alcohol content of a million but if they are not operating a vehicle then they can’t be guilty of OWI.

This case and others is a line of cases ensuring the definition of operate encompasses as much action on the part of drivers as possible. This is part of an overall trend toward increasingly harsh and ever-growing laws to punish drivers who may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The laws will never go the other way. Indeed, public sentiment likely supports the increasingly harsh laws on drunk drivers.

Contact ArborYpsi Law

Call Sam Bernstein at 734-883-9584 or e-mail at bernstein@arborypsilaw.com.

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

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

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