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New Jersey’s Drunk Driving Statute and the Issue of Operation

New Jersey’s drink driving (DWI/DUI) statute (Act) prohibits a person from operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and various other intoxicants. Unfortunately, the statute does not define operation. The courts, however, have placed a meaning on the term that is much broader than they lay person’s idea of “driving.”

In all drunk driving (DWI/DUI) cases, the government will attempt to prove operation by one of the following methods: (1) an admission by the defendant; (2) observations of the defendant operating a motor vehicle; and, (3) circumstantial evidence. If one of the first two methods exists, the government’s case is usually well-grounded on the issue of operation. The third method of proof has produced the most controversy and that is so because the courts have concluded that a person can violate the Act even if that person only intends to operate a motor vehicle. This line of judicial though (i.e. liability on the basis of a mere intention to drive) has produced some odd results. A brief rendition of some of the facts operative to cases where a person has been convicted under the Act with just the intention to operate motor vehicle follows:

• The defendant was steering a disabled vehicle which was being pushed by another vehicle.

• The defendant was found intoxicated at the wheel of the vehicle where the vehicle was parked with the motor off.

• The defendant entered a vehicle, put himself in the driver’s seat and started to place a key into the ignition.

• The defendant had possession of her car keys; told the police officer that made a phone call in a nearby restaurant; and, that when she returned the car was missing. The police officer found the vehicle on the street on the opposite side of the restaurant.

In October 2007, an appellate panel of judges in New Jersey seemed to point the arrow of justice in the right direction on this delicate and troubling issue in a case with the following operative facts: (1) the defendant was found slumped over the steering wheel of a pick-up truck at 11:20 p.m. about 25 yards into a private driveway owned by a friend; (2) the vehicle’s head lights were off; (3) the interior light was on; (4) the key was in the ignition, but the engine was not running; (5) the investigating police officer has not checked the hood of the vehicle to determine its warmth or question the homeowner about whether he operated the vehicle that evening; and, (6) the defendant provided no statements addressed to the issue of operation or the intent to operate.

During the appellate arguments in the case, the government contended that the fact that defendant was slumped over the wheel and the key was in the ignition was sufficient to convict. The court rejected the argument and concluded that two other equally compelling influences could be drawn that were inconsistent with guilt. The first was that defendant’s homeowner/friend operated the vehicle. The second was that defendant visited the homeowner/friend, parked the vehicle in the driveway without removing the key, got drunk and at the end of the evening went to the vehicle to “sleep it off.” Resultantly, the court reversed defendant’s conviction and entered a judgment of acquittal.

The lesson to be learned from this case is that the government does not have a “lock” on all operation issues, if your trial lawyer can drive the court’s attention to the government’s responsibility to prove each element of its case beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, your trial lawyer must be able to articulate other reasonable inferences from the evidence that directs conclusions away from guilt.

To read more information related to drunk driving (DWI/DUI) prosecution, you can download a book titled New Jersey’s DWI Survivor Guide” located on this website.

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