Should We Punish Drivers Who Pull Over To Sleep It Off?

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on November 10th, 2010

I continue to receive queries concerning a news article I commented on a long ago, "Parking Under the Influence". And the answer is….Yes, you can be arrested in many states for "sleeping under the influence" in your parked car — on the shaky theory that you were probably driving some time earlier and were probably intoxicated at the time.

What was unusual about that Alabama story was that those asleep in their cars had admittedly never driven — but were arrested because they might.The response of MADD and government has been that this helps prevent DUI-related fatalities. As the Alabama sheriff said, "What if they woke up at 2:00am…and decided to drive?" What is frightening, of course, are the obvious ramifications: Where do we stop once we decide to punish folks for what they might do?

In any event, despite the rhetoric about preventing traffic fatalities, the real concern seems increasingly focused on punishment rather than prevention:

Question: If an individual begins driving home from a restaurant and realizes he has had too much to drink, what do we want him to do — if we are truly interested in preventing an accident?

Answer: We would like to see that person pull over and sleep it off.

Question: How do we encourage that conduct?

Answer: We don’t punish him for doing it.

Question: Then why do police continue to arrest and the courts to convict these folks for drunk driving?

There are two issues involved. First, the legal issue: Although under the influence, was the individual driving? The various states have slightly different definitions of what constitutes "driving", but they usually involve "operating" or being "in physical control" of a motor vehicle. Second, the public policy issue: Shouldn’t we encourage conduct that seeks to avoid danger to the public and/or commission of a crime?

Looking at the legal issue first, how can a person be "operating" or "in physical control" of a vehicle if he is asleep? Well, in their stampede to "get tough" on drunk drivers, many states have stretched their definitions of "driving" to the breaking point — and beyond. In State v. Lawrence, 849 S.W.2d 761, for example, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that a defendant who was asleep on the driver’s side of his parked vehicle with the keys in his pants pocket was in "physical control" within the meaning of the DUI statute — and thus guilty of drunk driving. Similarly, in State v. Peterson, 769 P.2d 1221, the Montana Supreme Court held that the defendant was in "actual physical control" of the vehicle when he was found parked off the roadway, asleep in the driver’s seat with the keys in his pocket. There are, fortunately, other courts which have held that this does not constitute driving. See, for example, State v. Bugger, 483 P.2d 404 (Utah).

Most courts do not address the second issue: legalities aside, as a public policy matter should such conduct be punished? This is possibly because judges may feel that is a matter for the legislature to address. But consider the holding of an Arizona court in reversing a DUI conviction:

The interpretation we place on the legislature’s imprecise language is compelled by our belief that it is reasonable to allow a driver, when he believes his driving is impaired, to pull completely off the highway, turn the key off and sleep until he is sober, without fear of being arrested for being in control. To hold otherwise might encourage a drunk driver, apprehensive about being arrested, to attempt to reach his destination while endangering others on the highway. Arizona v. Zavala, 666 P.2d 456.

Makes sense. Of course, angering MADD is not a good way to get reelected to the bench.
 

 

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