Is forcibly taking the keys from a drunk driver a crime

Lets say you are in traffic and you are behind a car that is engaging in reckless driving. Weaving in and out of lanes, almost causing multiple accidents, etc.

If you both stop at a stop light and you get out of your car, go up to the car causing problems and then open the door and take their keys, is that a crime? Is it a crime to commit theft to prevent the commission of a crime (reckless driving)?

How would this “Good Samaritan/vigilante” determine that it was in fact alcohol/drugs that were causing this erratic driving?

Doesn’t matter, reckless driving is a crime irrelevant of the reason. This isn’t assuming a person had 1 beer and is driving home safely, this is a situation where another driver has violated multiple traffic laws and almost caused several accidents in the last few miles.

This is a really good question!

I’ve wondered this myself. The advice that I’ve been given all of these years is to use all possible means to take the keys from a drunk driver. I’ve never been in the situation where I had to decide whether to do it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a drunk driver (who is already impaired, by definition) got so angry that they called police and pressed charges against the do-gooder, possibly by manipulating the evidence away from drunk driving and more toward a straight-up carjacking or auto theft case.

Some theories on why it might not be a crime:

  1. It can be considered a form of Citizens’ Arrest, as long as the keys are withheld only so long as the driver remains intoxicated or if the keys are turned over to a non-intoxicated owner or co-owner.

  2. It can be considered Self-Defense or defense of third-party innocents, as you are neutralizing a deadly threat.

  3. It is legal as long as you promptly turn the keys over to police, on the theory that you took the keys as evidence for police without intent to illicitly and personally profit from the taking.

  4. There is a specific legal exception that makes it not a crime.

  5. It actually is a crime, but prosecutors will rarely go after someone for doing this because of the strong positive benefits to society.

It would be interesting to compare this with other hypothetical takings by civilians:

  1. Taking a gun from someone who you knew intended to commit a crime with it.
  2. Taking illegal drugs from someone (and then either destroying them or turning them over to police).
  3. Deleting child pornography off of someone else’s computer.
  4. Walking off with legal fertilizer that someone was stocking up with intent to make a bomb to use to commit an act of terrorism.
  5. Taking the pen from someone who was in the act of writing a bad check.
  6. Sneaking into someone’s garage and converting their illegally modified firearms back to (legal) factory configuration.
  7. Taking wire from someone who was in the act of stealing Cable TV.

This is not legal advice. For legal advice, consult a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction. You are not my client and I am not your lawyer.

As a general rule, the common-law defense of necessity might be available to a criminal charge that arose from taking the keys.

From Buckley v. City of Falls Church, 371 SE 2d 827 (Va Ct App 1988).

Something like breaking a car window on a hot day if there’s a kid in the car, and the owner/parent isn’t around to let the kid out.

Breaking the window is the right thing to do…if there isn’t anything else that will rescue the kid.

Try the door handle first of course ;).

So, you want to try and take away the keys from a possibly drunk individual?
What could possibly go wrong?

I have a yellow belt in karate and keep several ninja stars under my hat. I’m sure nothing bad will happen.

Now that everybody has a phone in their pocket, calling 911 and following the bad driver while vectoring the cops into position is the best thing to do.

The next best thing to do if you’re at a traffic light as your OP scenario has it is this:

Go to the car ahead of the bad driver, explain the situation, and the two of you cooperate to box him in so he can’t move. The car ahead backs until the bumpers touch and you pull forward the same way. Not much potential for damage if the cars are already touching.

Good luck with that conversation and don’t forget how many lousy drivers are carrying firearms. This driver has already demonstrated poor judgment. How much more poor judgment will they demonstrate before the night is over?

If someone is obviously driving recklessly it wouldn’t really matter why they were (i.e. drunk or not). Driving a motor vehicle erratically is very hazardous. I’d go so far to say that if you were a passenger in said car you could (and should) be prosecuted if don’t do something to try and stop them by that point.

As far as taking someone’s keys, consider this: Where I live in NY State if the police find you outside legally intoxicated and you’re merely within a certain distance of your car with your keys in your pocket you can be arrested & charged with DUI based on intent alone.

Sacramento CA, 1981 or thereabouts, T intersection, Fair Oaks Blvd and Manzanita Ave, I’m westbound on FOB come to the stop at Manzanita, a Chevy Vega in front of me, he’s the first guy at the stop light. Why he stopped at the red is a mystery, but on the green he couldn’t get the car to go, kept on stalling. California’s full of bozos with poorly maintained cars so at first it’s not too unusual. Then the guy gets out of the car like he’s going to check under the hood or something and it is instantly apparent this guy is wasted. My wife is in the car with me, she also can see the cat is totaled. She tells me “Do something”. I get out, the guy behind me gets out, a guy from the parking lot next to the intersection comes over, a couple other fellas from -who knows where- show up. No central command, no conference, just a bunch of guys who know this is not going to end well if Drunk Guy drives away. Drunk Guy gets belligerent, we take his keys out of the ignition, push the car to the shoulder, don’t grab him, don’t rough him up or anything like that, just keep him contained until the cops show up. Five or six guys in concert can convince even the dumbest, drunkest guy that getting physical isn’t the way to go. Don’t know who called the cops (no wide spread car phones at that time) or if the CHP officer was just going by, but after the dust settled the cop told up we were all good dudes and did the right thing. All of us gave names, addresses, phone numbers to the CHP, I’m sure the defendant had access to all of that information. I was never called to testify, depose, or give any account after that afternoon. Just guessing he copped some type of plea but he never again bothered anyone from that incident.

So taking his keys was:
A: Pretty Easy
B: A No Brainer
C: The Right Thing To Do

Never thought about any repercussions. Never occurred to me it could be a problem. All of us just knew that this was a situation that needed handling. No macho posturing, no over the top shenanigans, just some guys doing what needed doing. No newspapers, no TV, just a cop saying “Thanks, you did the right thing.”
Would it work that way today? Sure hope so. Would I do it that way today? I think so.

(Full disclosure, Wife is out of town, kids and friends are downstairs playing their 18th hour of Magic, I’ve worked my ass off in the yard today, and I’m deep into a bottle of Maker’s. At home, not driving.)

Your head will get all scratched up after awhile.

Would that be a razor-rimmed throwing hat?

Well, in New Zealand there was a spate of cases where local drivers forced dangerously driving tourists to stop (or followed them till they did stop) and took the car keys off them, and took the keys to the local police. In virtually every case, the local backed up their action with video footage of the dangerous driving, and in most cases the rental companies cancelled the car hire.


I don’t believe any of the local drivers were charged, but the police have warned that such actions could lead to trouble. This followed a number of fatal car crashes involving tourists in rental vehicles having issues with NZ driving conditions - adapting to driving on the left on winding roads in challenging terrain, unfamiliar road signage and markings, and trying to absorb the scenery at the same time.

So in some parts of the world, if you can justify it with good evidence, you may well get away with it. But you may also get assaulted, or worse. You wouldn’t try it with a car full of Mongrel Mob members driving home drunk from the pub - you’d dial *555 and let the cops deal with them.

How about a man visibly stumbling out of a bar while fishing out his keys. He is falling-down drunk but clearly intends to start driving his car. what about grabbing those keys and running with them?


Try the door handle after. If it opens, lock the damn thing, quick!


There’s no way on earth I would try taking the keys from a drunk driver. Too many people with guns, and I’m not one of them. I would call the police and keep my distance.

Interesting. I wonder whether taking keys under other conditions could constitute necessity, such as:

  1. Forcibly taking the keys from someone who doesn’t have a driver’s license (under the theory that only licensed drivers are considered safe enough to drive).
  2. Forcibly taking keys from someone about to drive a car with an expired safety inspection sticker (under the theory that only cars with current stickers are considered safe).
  3. Forcibly taking keys from a non-drunk person who you know plans to give those keys to a drunk driver.
  4. Forcibly taking the keys from someone who intends to carry a child in their car without the proper child seat or with a misconfigured child seat (under the theory that your conduct is necessary to protect the child).
  5. Forcibly taking the keys from someone who you know intends to commit a non-DUI offense with the car (e.g. a driver who has just accepted a challenge to participate in an unlicensed street race).
  6. Forcibly taking the keys from someone who you know intends to drive in a manifestly unsafe manner despite sobriety and despite the technical legality of the conduct (e.g. a driver who intends to drive a Lamborghini onto an unpaved, winding mountain road during a blizzard).

Also, I wonder whether the drunk person would have a right of self-defense in such a scenario. E.g. if Bill tries to forcibly take John’s keys while John is intoxicated but John fights back and injures Bill only to the extent necessary to prevent Bill from taking John’s keys, would John have a defense to assault (or related) charges or would it not be available because Bill’s taking was justified under necessity?