State Supreme Court Tackles Question of “Operation” of Remotely Started Vehicles

In a recent criminal law matter, State v. Cyr, 291 Conn. 49, 967 A.2d 32 (2009), the Supreme Court of Connecticut was faced with the question of what acts constitute operation of motor vehicles, so as to fall within the purview of the State’s statutory prohibition against operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI).

This case arose from an incident that occurred in the early hours of February 28, 2005. A police officer noticed the defendant and a passenger sitting in their vehicle in a parking lot near a local bar. The officer approached and spoke to the defendant, at which point he detected the odor of alcohol emanating from inside the vehicle. After the defendant failed a series of field sobriety tests, he was placed under arrest and charged with OMVUI. The defendant pled not guilty and filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that he was not operating his car. Rather, he claimed that a car which has been started using a remote starter cannot be operated until the ignition key is actually inserted and turned. The court was not persuaded and denied this motion, as well as a subsequent motion to dismiss. The defendant pled nolo contendere, and upon the entry of conviction, he filed an appeal.

The Appellate Court reversed judgment, stating that this scenario fell outside the meaning of “operation” under State law. It found that the state failed to provide sufficient evidence indicating the defendant “had undertaken an act that alone or in sequence [with other acts would] set in motion the motive power of the vehicle.” (Internal quotation omitted) The State appealed this decision, arguing that the definition of “operation” was broad and meant to include acts such as those in this case. The defendant countered that he started the engine outside the vehicle and he could not operate it because the key was not in the ignition.

General Statutes § 14-227a is Connecticut’s OMVUI statute. A person commits this offense when he or she operates a motor vehicle while under the influence of either drugs or alcohol. The statute, however, does not define “operate,” and its legislative history provides no insight. Therefore, the Supreme Court looked to case law, which has held the following:

A person operates a motor vehicle within the meaning of [the] statute, when in the vehicle he intentionally does any act or makes use of any mechanical or electrical agency which alone or in sequence will set in motion the motive power of the vehicle.

State v. Swift, 125 Conn. 399, 403 (1939) (emphasis added). Thus, the Supreme Court believed that the State legislature meant “operating” to encompass a wider spectrum of conduct than “driving” would. Furthermore, under State v. Haight, the court wrote, “Each act, in sequence with other steps, will set in motion the motive power of the vehicle. … Each act therefore constitutes operation of the vehicle…” 279 Conn. 551, 553 (2006).

In this case, the Supreme Court found the above principles applicable to the facts presented. The defendant “clearly undertook the first act in a sequence of steps necessary to set in motion the motive power of a vehicle that has been equipped with a remote starter.” The Court was not persuaded that a person must be in their vehicle first in order to perform an act that constituted operation. It considered the lack of the key in the ignition as a “temporary impediment” to the movement of a remotely started vehicle. Therefore, the judgment of the Appellate Court was reversed and the case remanded.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence), 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.