The first word in the acronym DUI is “drive,” yet many people believe that a person can get a California DUI even if they didn’t drive a vehicle. While that may be the case in other states, in California a prosecutor needs to prove that a person actually drove a vehicle while intoxicated.
California Vehicle Code section 23152 (a) and (b) reads, “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or who has 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle.”
So can a person be arrested and subsequently convicted if police find them drunk and passed out in a parked car?
In the 1991 case of Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Supreme Court held that the word “drive” for purposes of California’s DUI law required evidence of a defendant’s volitional movement of a vehicle. With his holding, the California Supreme Court upheld “decades of case law” on the issue.
In 1985, it was held in the case of People v. Wilson that “[w]ith regard to the offence of driving under the influence…a ‘slight movement’ of the vehicle in the officer’s presence has been a determinative factor in concluding whether or not a defendant was ‘driving’ in the presence of the officer.”
So does that mean that the officer must witness a “slight movement” of the vehicle? No.
The court in Wilson went on to say, “On the other hand, where the sufficiency of the evidence to support the judgement is in question, as contrasted with the validity of a defendant’s arrest, it is clear that the existence of evidence establishing a ‘slight movement’ of the vehicle does not present a problem. In the absence of such direct evidence of ‘driving’ the element of ‘driving’ may nonetheless be established at trial through circumstantial evidence…”
Simply put, a prosecutor needs to prove that a DUI suspect, at the very least, caused a vehicle to slightly move. The easiest way to prove that the DUI suspect was driving is if an officer observes a “slight movement” of the vehicle. However, if an officer does not observe a “slight movement,” a prosecutor can still prove that a person drove a vehicle with circumstantial evidence.
Circumstantial evidence that has been used to prove that a person drove for purposes of a California DUI include, but not limited to, officers finding the vehicle at or close to an accident site or finding the vehicle in the middle of the road.
California’s DUI law is different than several other states which only require “dominion and control” over a vehicle. In those states, DUI suspects can be charged and convicted if they are found intoxicated while having “dominion and control” over a vehicle with the potential to drive it.
So to answer our initial question of whether a person can arrested and subsequently convicted of a California DUI if they’re found drunk and passed out in a parked car, the answer is it depends. It depends on whether the prosecutor can prove that the person actually drove the vehicle.