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A recent news story that has gained some notoriety in California involves a man who was arrested and charged with driving under the influence after he fell asleep at the wheel while in the drive-through lane of a fast food restaurant. The man drove through the drive through lane twice, but on the second time through he passed out on the steering wheel with his foot on the brake. Police officers had to rouse the man, who subsequently performed poorly on a series of field sobriety tests and was ultimately found to have a blood alcohol level of .16 percent, which is twice the legal limit.
This case helps dispel many DUI myths that are still widely believed. Many people are under the false impression that a person cannot get a DUI in a parking lot, because it is private property and thus would not fall under the DUI statute. Courts have consistently dismissed this argument and DUI convictions occurring on private property such as business parking lots or roads in fenced-in storage facilities have been upheld. Unlike some traffic laws which only apply to public roads and highways, the DUI statutes apply to both public streets as well as private property. Thus, a person who passes out behind the wheel in a fast food restaurant parking lot can be arrested for and charged with DUI.
Many people also think that only those who are actually “driving” a vehicle can be stopped and arrested for DUI. However, the fact that a motor vehicle is not actually in motion when the offense occurs is not a defense to a charge of driving under the influence. In many cases, the act of driving can be shown by circumstantial evidence. When an officer comes to the scene of an automobile collision and establishes that one of the drivers was intoxicated, that driver can be arrested for DUI even though the officer never actually observed any driving conduct.
The same is true of drivers who pass out in their vehicle while in the middle of an intersection or while going through a restaurant drive through. In many cases, impaired drivers who fall asleep or pass out while behind the wheel can be just as dangerous as those who speed or engage in other reckless driving conduct. Drunk drivers who pass out behind the wheel can easily cause a collision resulting in injury or death to themselves or others.
There are situations where an impaired driver may be passed out in a vehicle but driving under the influence charges would be unlikely. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers recognize that sometimes people make the smart decision to sleep in their vehicles rather than drive after drinking too much. If it is clear that a driver was sleeping in his or her vehicle rather than trying to drive, he or she would likely avoid DUI charges. When making a filing decision, prosecutors will consider factors such as whether or not keys were in the ignition or if the engine was running. Those who pass out in vehicles can still potentially be charged with drunk in public in violation of California Penal Code Section 647(f).
That’s quite a strange case. My friend who is working with a Los Angeles DUI attorney told me a similar case to this. It was contested by his boss and he won acquittal for their client. Not sure how he did it though!