Texas Drivers Risk DWI If They Sleep In Their Car After Drinking

Recently, El Paso police allegedly discovered a 22-year-old intoxicated woman asleep in her car. And while police state that the car was not moving at the time of the discovery, they claim that the keys were in the ignition and the car's engine was running.

According to the El Paso Times, the young woman was ultimately arrested for driving while intoxicated (DWI) - among other charges - even though no actual "driving" was occurring when the police encountered the woman.

This recent arrest is a reminder to all El Paso motorists that vehicles do not have to be actually moving in order for the driver to be charged with a DWI in Texas. In fact, in some instances a driver may still face DWI charges even if he or she decided to sleep in his or her car instead of driving home after consuming alcohol.

WHAT CONSTITUTES DRIVING WHILE INTOXICATED IN TEXAS?

Under Texas law, a person has committed a DWI if he or she is "intoxicated while operating a motor vehicle in a public place." Interestingly, even though the Texas Penal Code expressly defines "intoxicated" - and even defines what is considered a "motor vehicle" - it fails to define what "operating" means; so it has been left up to the courts to define.

Texas courts have interpreted "operating" very broadly when it comes to DWI charges. Basically when reviewing whether sufficient evidence exists to support a DWI conviction, courts will deem a motorist "operating" a motor vehicle when, based on all circumstances, the motorist took some action to "affect the functioning of his vehicle in a manner that would enable the vehicle's use."

This definition has led to several Texas cases in which DWI convictions have been upheld even when the car was not moving and the driver was asleep. In one case, a motorist was sleeping in his car with the engine running and radio on, with his foot in a position that it could reach the brake pedal. The court determined that a jury, based on these facts, could come to the conclusion that the motorist had taken steps that impacted the functioning of the car, and consequently was operating the car before falling asleep.

Moreover, just last year a Texas court upheld a DWI conviction in which the motorist was found asleep with his seatbelt on in his running car - which was running so that the motorist could use the heater on a cold night. Ultimately, the motorist admitted he had been driving the car, but it does illustrate just how broadly Texas courts can define "operating" in the context on DWIs.

Given that the determination of whether a motorist is in fact "operating" a motor vehicle is a question of fact, even the smallest detail can be the difference between a DWI conviction and an acquittal. Because of this, it is often best to speak to a knowledgeable DWI defense attorney to ensure all possible defenses are pursued if ever charged with a DWI.