Can You Get a DWI When Sitting or Sleeping in Your Parked Car?

Could you be considered driving while intoxicated (DWI) if you were drunk and sat or slept in your parked car? In North Carolina, the legal answer is yes — you don’t have to be “driving” your car, in the way most people think of driving, to be charged with a DWI.

Why is this so? In terms of justice and public safety, it may seem rather absurd and cruel to punish somebody for simply being drunk in their car without actually driving it. However, some law enforcement officers and prosecutors believe that when a person is found drunk in their parked car, they likely were driving while intoxicated beforehand. In terms of how the law allows for such an interpretation of “driving while intoxicated”, it would help to look at the elements of DWI and some definitions.

out of state dwi sign, for people visiting north carolina

Elements and Definitions of DWI in North Carolina

All crimes are composed of certain elements that ought to be proven in order to convict a defendant. For DWI in North Carolina, as governed by N.C. Gen. Stat. §20-138.1, a person is guilty of a DWI when he or she:

drives any vehicle upon any highway, any street, or any public vehicular area within this State
  1. While under the influence of an impairing substance; or
  2. After having consumed sufficient alcohol that he has, at any relevant time after the driving, an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more. The results of a chemical analysis shall be deemed sufficient evidence to prove a person's alcohol concentration; or
  3. With any amount of a Schedule I controlled substance, as listed in G.S. 90-89, or its metabolites in his blood or urine.

While the law uses the word “driving” here, this term is considered synonymous with “operator” under the law. A person is an operator a car when they are in actual physical control of a vehicle that is in motion or which has the engine running.

This definition should clear up some questions about DUI, but there are still so many unique scenarios that may fit under this definition or narrowly skirt around it.

DWI When Parked Case Law

With every case being unique, it is difficult to predict the results of a specific case, but we can look at similar past cases to get a good idea.

In State v. Carter (1972), the court held that a defendant who was found asleep and intoxicated in his vehicle which was stopped at a stop sign and had the engine running was guilty of a DWI. Based on circumstantial evidence, they inferred that the defendant must have driven his vehicle on the highway while intoxicated, then fell asleep.

In State v. Fields (1985), the court did not find that the defendant was “driving” when he sat behind the steering wheel in the driver’s seat and started the car’s engine in order to make the heater operable, but the car remained motionless.    

If I was Charged With a DWI When Parked, Should I Hire a Lawyer?

Even if you are facing charges that seem frivolous, we always recommend that you hire an experienced lawyer. Convictions for such cases are more common than you think, as prosecutors can rely on circumstantial evidence that suggests the defendant must have driven while intoxicated shortly before being arrested.

The attorneys at Tarlton Polk have successfully represented clients facing DWI charges in all kinds of unique situations. If you or a loved one was charged with a DUI, you can give us a call or reach out to us below.

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