Can you be charged with DUI for sitting in your vehicle?

In a word yes!

Can you be charged with murder when you were nowhere near the scene of the crime? Yes. But that does not mean that the murder charges will necessarily stick.

But how about a DUI will those charges stick if you were merely sitting in your car and happen to be under the influence of alcohol when the police roll up and disrupt your drunken bliss? Strangely the answer is yes. The question that the Court is called upon to evaluate to determine guilt or innocence is whether or not you were in “actual physical control” of your car/motorcycle/bicycle at the time the police invaded your privacy.

Actual physical control translates into a number of factors which have been discussed previously on this blog (Atkinson v. State). They include:

1) Where you were sitting/sleeping in the car (yes you can be charged with DUI even if sleeping in the car)
2) Was the engine running 3) Were the keys in the ignition 4) Were the headlights on 5) Was the car legally parked in a space or were you sleeping in the middle of the road 6) Was the car in gear

These factors lend some guidance to the judge in his attempt to determine whether you were in “actual physical control” of your car. If the judge finds that you were sleeping the driver’s seat of the car in the travel lane of the road, or even on the shoulder of the road and the engine was running, it is more than likely that you will be found to be in actual physical control of the car and thereby the chances of conviction of DUI are enhanced.

Conversely, if you are sleeping in the backseat of the car (a very good place to be) or in the passenger seat of the car and the keys are on the console or perhaps in your pocket and the car is legally parked in a designated space, then this would significantly improve the chance of not being physically in control of the car.

However, this matter can be further complicated if you elect to answer the cops questions as they proceed to interrogate you about how you came to parked at that location. For example if you were to say that you drove yourself there 30 minutes ago and you didn’t feel well and thus decided to pull over and sleep for a while, well that sounds reasonable but it’s probably enough for the judge to find you in “actual physical control” and under the influence of alcohol at the time of driving. Furthermore, if you did not have anything to drink while you were parked at that location but rather drank earlier in the evening, then you are incriminating yourself by indicating that you were driving while under the influence earlier in the evening.

Thus the law tends to support pulling over into a safe location, engine off, driver in the back seat of the car and answering NO questions because you can easily incriminate yourself by answering the questions despite doing everything else legally, safely, and correctly.

It’s almost like a conspiracy to convict you of DUI despite doing what is in the best interest of the community and yourself. I would add that there is a little known unreported case from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals which does lend some credence to the concept of the “shelter doctrine” or pulling over to seek shelter when not feeling well. While this case can be useful in some contexts it is not controlling as Atkinson v. State is more controlling in this context with the factors identified above.