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Element of Driving in DC DUI Cases

A common misconception about the element of driving in a DC DUI case is that a person needs to be driving their vehicle to be convicted of driving under the influence. This is not true. The element of driving in the context of driving under the influence means that a person must be in operational control of their vehicle. The rule is different from state to state and a person should understand that DC has specific rules as to what it means to be in operational control of the vehicle.

If you have been charged with a DUI as a result of the element of driving, but are unsure of how the charge was brought forward, it is imperative to consult with an experienced attorney as soon as possible. A knowledgeable lawyer will be able to help build a defense against your charge, and help produce a successful outcome on your behalf.

Understanding the Element of Driving

Under DC case law, a person is in operational control of the vehicle when they have the ability to put the car in motion with minimal effort. Oftentimes, that means if a person is sitting in the driver seat and the keys are anywhere in the passenger compartment of the vehicle, they are considered to be driving the car for DUI purposes.

The rule applies even if a person is fast asleep in the driver seat and the keys are in their pocket or on the passenger’s seat. Even in situations where a person has no intention of driving a car, they are considered to be driving. They are in operational control of the vehicle.

The only way to avoid being considered to be in operational control of the vehicle is to not be sitting in the driver seat or not have the keys anywhere near the passenger compartment of the car.

The best thing to do to avoid being considered in operational control of a vehicle is to not get into the car in the first place. That way, there is no question whether someone was sitting in the driver’s seat. Staying out of the car is the best way to avoid being convicted of the element of driving in a DC DUI case.

Determining the Driver

A passenger or someone alleged to be sitting in a passenger seat is not considered to be in operational control of vehicle. If police believe there is evidence that a driver, after driving the vehicle, moved to a passenger seat to avoid being arrested for driving under the influence, the person sitting in the passenger seat could be arrested. The police and the prosecutors need some kind of evidence that a person sitting in the passenger seat was initially sitting in the driver’s seat and was intoxicated at the time.

That can include evidence from a police officer who saw the person move from the driver’s seat to the passenger seat or an independent witness who can testify that they saw a driver get out of the vehicle or move from the driver seat to a passenger seat.

That kind of witness testimony can show that a person was previously sitting in the driver seat and was under the influence of alcohol at the time they were sitting in the driver’s seat and acting in the element of driving in a DC DUI case.

Location of an Arrest

A person does not need to be driving on a public road, city street, or highway to be arrested for driving under the influence. A person could be sitting in their car in the driver seat in a parking lot, parking garage, or parking space on a public street and be arrested for driving under the influence.

For example, a person might drive to a bar, park their car on the side of the road in a valid parking space, go to the bar, have a few drinks, come back to the vehicle and decide to sleep it off for a few hours before driving home.

If that person gets into their car, does not move the car, and keeps it in the parking space or parking lot, they can still be arrested and charged for driving under the influence even though they had no intention of moving the car from the parking space or the parking garage.

Frequency of an Arrest

It is not uncommon for police officers to monitor parking lots, parking spaces, and parking garages to look for people who might be asleep in their car. This is the case for parking areas near night clubs or popular drinking areas around the city. The police patrol these areas and frequently make arrests for driving under the influence when they find people asleep in their cars in parking areas.

Common Misconceptions

A common misconception that people have is that if they are sleeping in the vehicle and their keys are not in the ignition, they are not considered to be acting on the element of driving in a DC DUI case. That is not true and is covered by a more recent decision by high-level courts in DC that a person does not need to have the keys in the ignition to be considered in operational control of their vehicle.

Burden of Proof

The prosecutors must prove that a person was in operational control of their vehicle to prove that they were driving. At a bare minimum, a prosecutor must show that the person in the driver’s seat was under the influence of alcohol.

Prosecutors do not necessarily need to prove that a person drove the car or put the keys in the ignition. Simply sitting in a driver seat while under the influence of alcohol and having the keys within physical control of the driver is sufficient for the prosecutors to prove that a person was driving for the purposes of the DUI statute.

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