Not only do I practice DUI defense and write these posts on DUI-related topics, but I also teach law which sometimes includes teaching students what is required for a DUI. Students are often surprised when I tell them that, in California, driving must occur for a person to be arrested, charged, and convicted of a California DUI.
States are split on whether a person can get a DUI for merely having their keys in the ignition. States that don’t require that the defendant actually drive are called “dominion and control” states. Fortunately, California is not one of those states.
In states that have “dominion and control” DUI laws, if a person is intoxicated and has dominion and control of their vehicle with the mere ability to drive, they can be arrested, charged, and convicted of that state’s DUI laws. California, on the other hand, requires that the defendant actually drive the vehicle.
In 1991, the California Supreme Court in the case of Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles held that the word “drive” in California’s DUI law means that the defendant volitionally and voluntarily moved the vehicle. While no movement is insufficient for a DUI, the courts have held that even a “slight movement” is enough to meet the requirement that the defendant drove the vehicle.
Therefore, in California, a person cannot get a DUI for merely having the keys in the ignition. The officers and prosecutor would need evidence, in addition to the keys being in the ignition, that the person voluntarily moved the vehicle.
When there is no direct evidence that the defendant drove, such as the officer witnessing the defendant driving, proof that the defendant drove can be established through circumstantial evidence and inferences.
For example, if a person is on the shoulder of the freeway as the sole occupant of a vehicle with the keys in the ignition and they are under the influence or have a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher, the prosecutor and jury can infer that there was no other way to get to shoulder of the freeway and there was no one other person who could have driven there.
Contrast that with a scenario in which the defendant is found under the influence or with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher in their vehicle which is in their driveway and the keys are in the ignition. Here, there is no other circumstantial evidence to create the inference that the defendant actually drove the vehicle.
So, just because you can’t be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI with just the keys in the ignition, doesn’t mean that a you should be drunk in a vehicle with keys in the ignition. Don’t put it past law enforcement and prosecutors to try to establish that a person drove even if ever so slightly.