NJ Judges: Sleeping Drunk Is Driving Drunk

NJ Judges: Sleeping Drunk Is Driving Drunk

A person who decides to sleep in their car after having had too much to drink can be convicted of drunk driving in New Jersey if the vehicle’s engine is running, an N.J. appellate court has ruled.

“The court noted that the state’s DWI statute never mentions the word ‘driving’ and instead uses the term ‘operating’ a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” northjersey.com reported.

The term “operation” has been broadly interpreted to encompass more than just ‘driving’ a vehicle,” the appellate court’s three-judge panel said. “Operation, for example, includes sitting or sleeping in a vehicle with the engine running, even when the vehicle isn’t in motion. Indeed, the New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized that ‘operation’ may be found from the evidence that would reveal ‘a defendant’s intent to operate a motor vehicle.’ …

“There is no doubt that an intoxicated and sleeping defendant behind the wheel of a motor vehicle with the engine running is operating the vehicle within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a), even if the vehicle was not observed in motion; it is ‘the possibility of motion’ that is relevant,” the court said.

DWI While Sleeping a Broad Interpretation of NJ Law

For all intents and purposes, the New Jersey court’s ruling means is it currently illegal to sleep in your car in New Jersey after drinking if the engine is running. Courts in New York and other states have handed down similar rulings.

At the Law Offices of Jonathan Marshall, we agree that it is a broad interpretation of the law to call sleeping in a car with the motor running after consuming alcohol a DWI offense. But the court said it had ruled that way seven times in unpublished opinions in the 12 months prior to its decision against 55-year-old John Thompson.

Thompson had stopped at a 7-Eleven in Wanaque, NJ, to buy a sandwich on the night of Sept. 7, 2017, and fell asleep in his car while eating. The store clerk called the police. Police detected an odor of alcohol on Thompson’s breath, and Thompson reportedly was arrested after failing a field sobriety test. At the police station, he refused a Breathalyzer test, which results in an automatic DWI conviction in New Jersey if police can show probable cause to administer the test.

Thompson’s attorney argued that Thompson was eating a sandwich as instructed with medication prescribed for a shoulder injury, which adversely affected his ability to maintain his balance. He says he will appeal the appellate court’s ruling to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

It’s unfortunate that the appellate court has handed down a decision that flies in the face of the hope that a driver who realizes he or she should not be driving after drinking would act responsibly and pull over someplace safe to sleep it off. On a cold night, such a driver would certainly keep the engine running to be able to heat the vehicle. But that, according to the court, is drunk driving, even while the purported vehicle operator is sound asleep.

Given the appellate court’s ruling, we’d expect there would still be room in a New Jersey court for a DWI attorney to argue for dismissal of a DWI charge if the vehicle’s engine was not running. We wonder whether a car occupant whom the police could not rouse from their sleep would be ruled to have been “operating” a running vehicle.

New Jersey’s Strict DWI/DUI Penalties

New Jersey’s drunk driving laws — referring to driving while intoxicated or impaired (DWI) or under the influence (DUI) — are among the strictest in the nation. Regardless of the circumstances, the law does not allow plea bargaining a DWI or DUI charge to a lesser charge.

As in every U.S. state, it is illegal to drive in New Jersey with a blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above 0.08 percent. You can also be convicted of driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor even when your BAC is below 0.08 percent if the court is persuaded that your driving ability was impaired by the amount of alcohol you consumed.

A person younger than 21 years old — the legal drinking age — can be found guilty of DWI with any detectible amount of alcohol in their blood while behind the wheel of a car.

For a first DWI/DUI conviction, the penalties are:

  • A fine of $250-$400
  • Up to 30 days in jail
  • Driver’s license forfeiture until an ignition interlock is installed, which is required for 3 months
  • A minimum of 6 hours a day for two consecutive days in an Intoxicated Driver Resource Center
  • An automobile insurance surcharge of $1,000 a year for 3 years.

If your BAC is 0.10 but less than 0.15, the penalties are:

  • A fine of $300-$500
  • Up to 30 days in jail
  • Driver’s license forfeiture until an ignition interlock is installed, which is required for 7 to 12 months
  • A minimum of 6 hours a day for two consecutive days in an Intoxicated Driver Resource Center
  • An automobile insurance surcharge of $1,000 a year for 3 years.

Offenders with a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher must install an ignition interlock device for 4 to 6 months while their driver’s license is suspended and for 9 to 15 months after their license is restored.

Second and third DWI/DUI convictions bring even harsher penalties, including up to 90 days in prison.

Any DWI/DUI conviction also requires:

  • A $100 surcharge to be deposited in the Drunk Driving Enforcement Fund
  • A Motor Vehicle Commission restoration fee of $100
  • An Intoxicated Driving Program fee of $100
  • A Violent Crimes Compensation Fund fee of $50
  • A Safe and Secure Community Program fee of $75

Contact a New Jersey Drunk Driving (DWI/DUI) Lawyer

If you are charged with driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence (DWI or DUI) anywhere in New Jersey, you need to contact an experienced drunk driving lawyer as soon as possible. The Law Offices of Jonathan F. Marshall have offices in nine locations across the state of New Jersey. Our DWI attorneys are former prosecutors and public defenders who now exclusively handle criminal defense cases.

In a New Jersey DWI of DUI case, there are opportunities for an experienced and knowledgeable attorney to challenge your arrest and/or evidence, and to help you avoid potentially costly and long-lasting penalties. Contact the Law Offices of Jonathan F. Marshall online or at (877) 450-8301 ASAP for a free assessment of your case and representation by our dedicated legal team.