It’s not an unlikely scenario when a person leaves a bar too drunk to drive and they decide to sleep in their car until they sober up. Kudos to the person for having the wherewithal to avoid driving when drunk. But if a law enforcement officers happens upon the sleeping bar patron, the question becomes whether they can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a California DUI.
Some states hold that a person can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI if they are in “dominion and control” of their vehicle with the ability to drive the it, even though they may not have actually driven it.
Fortunately, California is not a “dominion and control” state, meaning that prosecutors here in California must prove that the person actually drove their vehicle.
The California Supreme Court in the case of Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles in 1991 held that the word “drive” in California’s DUI law means that the defendant volitionally and voluntarily moved the vehicle. The court has held that even a “slight movement” is enough to meet the requirement that the defendant drove the vehicle as long as it was voluntary.
Does this mean that a person who is sleeping in a car while under the influence can completely avoid criminal charges? No.
If a person is found sleeping in their car, it is likely that any arresting officer did not see the person drive. Therefore, there may not be any direct evidence for a prosecutor to prove that a person drove. A prosecutor, however, can use circumstantial evidence to prove that the person drove to where they were found while under the influence and then fell asleep.
For example, if an intoxicated person is sleeping in their vehicle in the middle of the road or at the scene of a collision (yes, it happens more often than you would think), then the prosecutor can raise those facts to create the inference that the person had driven. In other words, the prosecutor would argue that it is reasonable to infer that the defendant drove.
On the other hand, if those facts do not exist that would create the inference that the defendant drove then the prosecutor is going to have difficult time proving that the person actually drove the vehicle while being under the influence. This scenario presents itself from time to time as well. But the person may still be charged with another crime such as drunk in public.
In the 1966 case of People v. Belanger, officers found the intoxicated defendant asleep in his vehicle which was located in a parking lot. Although the facts in that case were not enough to create the inference that the defendant had driven to the location while under the influence because he could have driven there sober, drank, and then fell asleep, the officers did arrest the defendant for drunk in public.
The Court concluded that, in order to prevent the defendant from waking up and driving drunk, they needed to arrest him on suspicion of being drunk in public.
Bottom line is that no person should be in a vehicle when they’re intoxicated whether they’ve driven it or not. A prosecutor may still be able to prove a case for driving under the influence or, in the event that they cannot create the inference that person drove, the person is still facing drunk in public charges.