What does it mean to be “in control” of your vehicle?

One of the elements the prosecution must prove to get a DUI conviction is that you were “in control” of the vehicle at the time of the alleged offense. Though the exact definition of what it means to be “in control” varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, it is important for you to know that this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be actually driving in order to get a DUI.

Tennessee code section 55-10-401 says that it is illegal to drive or “be in physical control of any automobile or other motor driven vehicle” while under the influence of a drug/intoxicating substance or with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher. Notice that the legislature has specifically delineated that motion of the vehicle is not a necessary prerequisite to a DUI charge. The law doesn’t say the vehicle has to be moving.

Did you know?

Most people don’t realize that they could get a DUI for simply sitting or sleeping in their vehicle while intoxicated, but it can and does happen. The turning point in such cases is whether someone could potentially be found to be in command or control of the vehicle at the time of their arrest. Let’s look at a practical example.

Where are the keys? It’s an important question.

Bob is out celebrating his brother’s upcoming wedding at a bar. The rest of the wedding party goes home, but he stays behind to settle up the bill. He is in an area of the state where taxis or Ubers/ride-sharing options aren’t plentiful, and believes he has no other options for a ride home. Bob decides to nap for a few hours to sober up and then drive home.

(Although wise not to drive, this still is not a recommended solution as he very likely could still be under the influence even a couple of hours later). Since it’s a cold night, he turns on the car’s heater for a while to warm up.

He switches the vehicle back off, leaves the keys in the ignition, reclines his seat and falls asleep. He is awakened a short time later by a knock at the window and sees a police officer’s flashlight shining in his face. Bob – predictably – fails several field sobriety tests and blows a .08 on the Breathalyzer. Though he never drove his car, he is found to be “in control” of it at the time and is arrested for suspicion of DUI.

Let’s assume now that, instead of putting the keys into the ignition, Bob puts them into the trunk or places them outside the vehicle on top of the front passenger wheel. He then climbs into the backseat to nap instead of sitting in the driver’s seat. In this situation, there is very little chance of him being able to drunkenly start the car and leave quickly. It is likely that he will not be found to be in control of his car based on these facts.

As these examples show, there is a subtle yet important difference in where the keys are located that can be of vital importance.

Have you been arrested and charged with DUI in a stationary vehicle? If so, you could very well have a valid defense based on whether or not you were actually controlling the vehicle at the time of your arrest. For more information about fighting DUI charges, speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.

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