DWI and DUI Charges for Sleeping in a Car

by | Feb 21, 2020 | Blog, Criminal Defense, Dui, Pennsylvania Criminal Law, Professional License Issues |

Practicing medical professionals face many competing social and professional interests. Nurses, doctors, pharmacists, researchers, and/or hospital managers participate in celebratory personal or work related social events in which consuming alcohol can be described as mandatory. Everyone experiences an occasional lapse in judgment, driving home from one of these events.  Every police traffic stop after 9:00 PM is a DUI/DWI investigation.  As such driving home after consuming alcohol, after a long day at work and an even longer social event, creates huge risks.

In the past, people chose to park and sleep in their car to avoid actively driving.  Many people think such is safe.  For example, drivers returning from the Atlantic City casinos stop at the Atlantic City Expressway rest stop.  They would park, turn the car off and go to sleep. The same can be said for many rest stops along the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpike‘s, train stations, gas stations, and other legal parking locations adjacent to and accessible by public roads.

This is an obvious display of a lack of intent to operate a motor vehicle.  In this heightened police/prosecution environment in which we live – drug over doses and medical marijuana – if the police somehow learn of a person sleeping in their car, an investigation will ensue.  More likely than not, that person will be charged with violating Pennsylvania or New Jersey’s DWI/DUI laws.

Sometimes a reasonable police officer would not conduct a DUI investigation under such obviously safe circumstances. However, on September 17, 2017 at 10:30 PM John Thompson parked his car in a Passaic, NJ Wawa and fell asleep.  A local police officer, getting coffee or called to the scene (Wawa employees always call the police)  commenced a DWI investigation.  He woke Thompson up and proceeded to question him. Thompson admitted to consuming various Schedule II controlled substances and several drinks at a local pub.  (Second mistake — answering questions.)  Thompson was charged with violating New Jersey’s 39:4-50, commonly known as a DWI.

Thompson argued, like many before him, that “sleeping behind the wheel” did not constitute driving or operation of a motor vehicle. He lost in Municipal Court and in his first appeal to the Superior Court, Trial Division.  He appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing sleeping in a motor vehicle with the engine running, did not constitute a sufficient intent to operate a motor vehicle.

In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it has long been the law that mere presence (sleeping or not) behind the wheel of a running or off motor vehicle, typically not in gear (but sometimes) constitutes operation of a motor vehicle for which a DUI investigation and conviction is proper. In New Jersey, defense counsel has always focused on operator “intent to operate” a motor vehicle. The February 17, 2020 State v. Thompson appellate decision eliminates the “intent to operate” argument long raised in the local Municipal Courts.  This decision emphasizes the number of 2019 appellate division cases in which counsel unsuccessfully argued this issue. In 12 unpublished appellate opinions the Appellate decision rejected the argument.  The court published State v. Thompson to eliminate any further confusion on the issue — to stop counsel from wasting the courts’ time with this DWI defense.

State v. Thompson lays to rest and eliminates any ambiguity in the court’s prior rulings.  Do not park your car to avoid driving drunk, thinking you can avoid a DWI/DUI investigation.  Parking one’s car, whether it is running or not (in the cold or hot weather for heat or air conditioning), and being found asleep drunk in your car constitutes a violation of 39:4-50.  The operator of the motor vehicle drove the car to that public location and, therefore, operated the car under the influence or while intoxicated.  The operator of the motor vehicle arrived at the public street, parking lot, parking space, gas station, Wawa, train station, rest stop through or with a motor vehicle that was operated while the person was intoxicated.

Even though you may be investigated with and charge with a driving under the influence or intoxicated offense, a healthcare professional has significant collateral consequences that need to be addressed independent of the DUI/DWI.   Do not make admissions to or speak to anybody from any board investigating entity about the DWI/DUI until you consult with an attorney.