Being Asleep at the Wheel of a Parked, but Running, Vehicle Constitutes “Operation” Under State DUI Law

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut considered whether a driver, who was asleep in the driver’s seat of his car while it was still running, operated a motor vehicle under Connecticut’s DUI law.

This case arose from an incident that occurred after midnight on December 24, 2005. Officers found the defendant asleep in the driver’s seat of his motor vehicle while the engine was still running. After waking the defendant and observing him as visibly intoxicated, the officers administered the standard field sobriety tests, all of which the defendant failed. The defendant was arrested, and at the police department, he submitted to two chemical alcohol tests, which revealed the defendant’s blood alcohol content as more than twice the legal limit.

The defendant was charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) of alcohol, in violation of Connecticut General Statutes § 14-227a. He filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that he was not operating his car. Rather, “he merely was asleep in his motor vehicle on a cold night with the motor running only to provide heat and power to run the radio.” However, the court denied the motion, and the defendant entered into a conditional plea of nolo contendere. Such a conditional plea reserves a defendant’s right to appeal. After sentencing, the defendant appealed, arguing that the court’s denial of his motion to dismiss was improper.

Under Connecticut case law, “operation” of a motor vehicle does not require that the vehicle actually be driven. Rather, “the insertion of a key into the ignition is an act… which alone or in sequence will set into motion the motive power of the vehicle.” Thus, simply putting the key into the ignition “constitute[s] operation of a motor vehicle within the meaning of § 14-227a(a).” This proposition has been upheld, for example, even when the operator is unconscious in the driver’s seat while the engine is running. In this case, the Appellate Court found that the defendant operated his car because he was in the driver’s seat of his vehicle with the engine turned on; it did not matter, for purposes of “operation,” that he was asleep at the time. Therefore, the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, and the Appellate Court affirmed judgment.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or license suspension, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.