What Happens When a Passenger and Driver Switch Seats in a DWI?

As you probably already know, driving while impaired (DWI) is illegal in every state. In North Carolina, a person can be charged with a DWI if they were operating a vehicle with a BAC level of 0.08 or higher.

Willfully being a passenger of a drunk driver is never a good idea for many reasons, but in most cases you would not be guilty of any criminal offense for being a passenger. However, if the drunk driver was getting pulled over and pressured you to switch places with them to appear that you were driving, this could get both you and the driver is even more trouble. You may think you could perform a quick maneuver to fool law enforcement, but in all likelihood you will get caught and both of you face additional charges.

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Why Would a Passenger and Driver Switch Seats?

If you aren’t one to be easily coerced into doing something stupid, this may seem like a puzzling circumstance to you, but there have been many cases of passengers and drivers switching seats after a traffic violation or DWI. Some reasons people have done so include:

  • The passenger is sober, or at least less intoxicated, so would more likely pass a field sobriety test or breathalyzer.
  • The driver may have a prior DUI conviction which could spell serious trouble, while the passenger has a clean record.
  • The driver may be concerned about their immigration status or other factors related to their license, while the passenger is not.

Whatever the reason may be, or the relationship a person has with the driver that may make them want to protect them, it is never a wise decision for both passenger or driver.

How Likely Could You Get Away with Switch Seats?

Not at all likely. When an officer pulls over a vehicle, they will be watching the driver closely throughout the stop. They likely already got a look at the driver and will easily detect if a different person is in the driving seat when they walk up to the driver’s door. Additionally, if you are caught in the act of moving, the officer may consider this to be “furtive movements” which would increase their suspicions that criminal activity is involved (e.g. people trying to hide away illegal drugs) and give them probably cause for a search.

However, even if the officer was not paying close attention and perhaps the driver and passenger look similar enough to pull a switch off, most patrol vehicles are equipped with video recording devices. If they review the video they will likely catch the driver and passenger switching seats, which could mean both people getting hit with serious charges.

What are the Penalties for Switching Seats?

Beyond getting charged with a DUI, both the passenger and driver could face charges for obstruction of justice. Specifically, you can face charges for providing an officer with false information. Additionally, if you file an insurance claim based on a false account of who was driving, both the passenger and driver could be charged with insurance fraud. This could easily take a state criminal case to a felony-level federal offense.

So, if you are ever in a situation where you are asked to switch seats with the driver for any reason, you should refuse no matter how much you care for that person. The best thing to do is offer them sound advice on how to deal with the police and handle an arrest, and quickly find them an experienced attorney to handle their case. The attorneys at Tarlton Polk have successfully defended countless DUI and related cases in North Carolina, many with challenging circumstances such as immigration issues and other violations. You can request a consultation below or call our office at 919-948-6464.

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