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After a person has had too much to drink, he or she may realize that they are not sober enough to drive. The driver may not have anywhere else to go and may do what he or she believes is the responsible thing and simply sleep in the vehicle. However, sleeping or passing out in one’s car while intoxicated can expose someone to DUI charges under certain circumstances. In some cases, an individual can be charged with drunk in public in violation of California Penal Code Section 647(f).
California’s DUI laws require evidence of “volitional movement.” This means that there must be some evidence that the car’s occupant was actually driving the vehicle. This “volitional movement” standard is much higher than other states, many of which only require that the defendant in a DUI case have “actual physical control” of a motor vehicle.
The law in California has been interpreted to allow a defendant who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol to sleep in his or her vehicle. However, there may be instances where the surrounding circumstances may convince a law enforcement officer or prosecutor that DUI charges would be appropriate. For example, if a driver passes out at a stoplight with his foot on the brake and the engine running, that driver would most likely be charged with DUI. In these cases, police are allowed to use circumstantial evidence to show that a driver was actually driving his or her vehicle while under the influence. The same would be true if a driver is discovered passed out or unconscious in a vehicle that has collided into a tree or street sign. In these cases, a driver’s claim that he or she was merely sleeping in the vehicle would not be considered very credible.
Because California requires a showing of volitional movement, simply being in a car with keys in the ignition or the engine running is not enough to violate California’s DUI laws. During a “welfare check” on a person observed sleeping in his or her vehicle, an officer will often ask whether or not the occupant has been driving recently. In many cases, the occupant will incriminate himself by admitting to driving while intoxicated.
It is critical for people in this situation to remember that even though they may not be charged with a DUI offense in California if caught sleeping in a motor vehicle, courts have allowed defendants in this situation to be convicted of drunk in public under California Penal Code Section 647(f). In the context of the drunk in public statute, a person’s car is not considered a “private place” if parked on a public street. In California, drunk in public is a misdemeanor level offense that can result in the defendant be sentenced to serve up to six months in jail in addition to expensive court fines. Drivers under the age of 21 who are convicted of drunk in public would also lose their driver’s license for a full year.