Drunk Driving: When a drunk person sits in the driver's seat? Or, key in the ignition? Or, car turned on? Or, car put in gear to move?

You can often find the actual wording of laws by searching " Criminal code" and the law you’re interested in.

Here’s the Oregon law:

So in that state you have to be driving

In Lousiana:

The law refers to “operating” a vehicle. I did another search and found this definition: “(44) “Operator” means every person, other than a chauffeur, who drives or is in actual physical control of a motor vehicle upon a highway or who is exercising control over or steering a vehicle being towed by a motor vehicle.”

Which… maybe? If you’re sitting in the drivers seat of a vehicle parked on the side of the road, are you “in actual physical control of a motor vehicle upon a highway?” Hire an expensive lawyer to tell you.

Well…the bar is closing and making you leave. Maybe you could call a cab. But not everywhere has Uber or cabs. Maybe call a friend, but not everyone can do that (or maybe you are travelling). We can come up with lots of circumstances where someone is standing out in the cold at 2am and their only shelter is their car.

You can argue they should not get drunk but that is a different debate.

As I know two people that had their lives screwed up by this interpretation of the law, I don’t think a DUI with 6 months loss of license and a $3,000 fine was at all appropriate for someone that at least was still rational enough to not drive home from the bar and really endanger others and himself.

The one friend lost his job over this over-reaction.

I don’t think it really is a different debate: the laws are about how an adult is responsible for their actions. Bad decisions lead to bad outcomes.

that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still potentially deadly dangerous in that situation. But that’s also why officers are supposed to have discretion. Some use it, some don’t.

I’d rather one bad decision not force a second bad decision.

All parts are correct and I was railing mostly about the officers that were being assholes about it.

The law itself is not shitty and stupid, because you don’t want a cop who witnesses a drunk person get into the driver’s seat and put the key in the ignition with the obvious intent to drive to have to wait until the car is actually moving to make the arrest.

The thing that’s shitty and stupid is cops not using their discretion if someone is clearly intending to sleep it off in their car - something we surely want to encourage at least as a last resort if we inadvertently have one too many.


A tricky thing is that on a cold night, you might well need to run the engine to avoid freezing if you plan to sleep in your car. Maybe the law should make an explicit exemption for someone who is not in the driver’s seat. You can start the car and run the heater from any seat.

I guess if you’re so drunk that you forget, and try to sleep in the driver’s seat, you’re SOL.

of course, all it takes is using your discretion wrongly once, and there’s a bad outcome and a huge hue and cry against the cop who gave them the benefit of the doubt. So some will become real rule sticklers to avoid being in that situation.

Observe the hue and cry noted in the thread Van lifer goes missing on cross country trip with fiancee about the cops who didn’t do more to prevent the murder. They exercised discretion.

In the UK it can be “in charge”. There has been much discussion on truck drivers’ forums where they might have a couple of beers before turning in and sleeping on a bunk at the back of the cab. People who drive motorhomes can be in the same situation.

The consensus is that if you are tucked up in a sleeping bag on a bed, you are fine. If you are still in your work clothes and sitting in the driver’s seat, then it can get a bit iffy. The location of the keys is immaterial.

There is one ‘hard luck’ story I have read: A guy drove (in a car) to spend the night with his GF in a distant town. Alcohol was consumed and they fell out, so he had to leave. Knowing he was over the limit he settled down in the back seat to sleep it off.

In the early hours, a cop woke him up, smelled his breath, and breathalysed him. He spent the rest of the night in a cell and was subsequently charged with being over the limit while in charge of a motor vehicle. When the case got to court, the magistrate sympathised and he got off, but it was, to quote Wellington, a near run thing.

A few years ago a friend decided he was too drunk to drive so he slept in the back seat of his car. He left his keys on top of one of his tires. A cop woke him up at some point and arrested him for DUI. He got a lawyer and was found not guilty, but the lawyer’s fee was way more than a taxi would have been.

Depending where his car was parked it might be towed if left overnight. That ain’t cheap either (and damage can occur…happened to my car once…not because I was drunk but when I got my car back a mirror was torn off and there were huge scrapes in the paint on the roof where they dragged magnetic flashing lights off…they told me my car was like that when they towed it…prove them wrong.)

Is there actually any rational basis for a policy of arresting people for DUI if they are sleeping in the back seat? Is there research that shows that people tend to wake up, still drunk, and drive home, or something like that? Or is it just stupidly rigid application of a well-intentioned law?

I think this is one of those laws you only get charged for if you’re being a jerk. For the most part anyway.

Because they are too drunk to do those things, and no friends are around to help them?

Sounds like poor planning.

How well do you reason when you are drunk?

In Ohio, a person can be arrested & convicted for “Physical Control.” This means the person [who is under the influence] is sitting in the driver’s seat of a vehicle and is in possession of the keys, where “possession” means the keys are within reach. The engine does not need to be running. It carries the same penalties as a standard OVI except there’s no points added to the driver license.