Should the Crime of “Driving” While Impaired Include “Physical Control”?

While all States have impaired driving crimes, there are different variations of abbreviations used for them, including DUI, DWI, OWI, OUI, DWAI, and others.  One of the problems with using these abbreviations is that people eventually equate “DWI” or “DUI” solely with “driving” while impaired.  Many people do not realize that the term “DWI” in most States, including Minnesota, includes “driving, operating, or being in physical control” of a motor vehicle while impaired.  While the definitions of “driving” and “operating” are simple enough to understand, the concept of “physical control” has been difficult to define throughout its history in Minnesota.  Even the Minnesota appellate courts have struggled to give it a concrete definition.  The big question is: Do we need to include “physical control” in our DWI criminal statute, and if so, for what purpose?

One of the most fundamental characteristics of a criminal offense is that it must be clearly defined and consistently applied.  In the case of “physical control” under Minnesota’s DWI criminal statute, neither characteristic is present.  The only thing that has been made clear is that the term “physical control” is meant to include the broadest interpretation possible to deter individuals from getting into vehicles while impaired (except as passengers) and to protect the public from drunk driving.  The Minnesota Legislature and the Minnesota Courts have never provided a concrete definition.  However, over the years the definition of “physical control” has continued to expand to include situations where:

  • the ignition keys were not present
  • the individual was not in the driver’s seat
  • the individual was not even in the vehicle at all
  • the vehicle was not operable due to being stuck in the snow, having a dead battery, being out of gas, having a frozen brake fluid line, or various other reasons
  • the person was waiting for a ride and using the vehicle as shelter
  • the person had been sleeping in the vehicle for hours and was still fast asleep or passed out when an officer woke the person up

Upon seeing this list of situations, many people are shocked and surprised that these scenarios would violate Minnesota’s DWI laws.  Not only do they violate our DWI laws, they are treated exactly the same as if the person had been driving down the road.  Does this make sense?  Many people disagree with treating the scenarios above the same as someone who is actually driving a vehicle.  And once people understand how broadly “physical control” is defined, the next logical step is to conclude that a person is less likely to be apprehended if they try to make it home rather than sleeping it off as a sitting duck for law enforcement.  What behavior are we really deterring, and what behavior are we encouraging?  Are we providing maximum protection to the public by defining the term “physical control” so broadly?  Common sense dictates that Minnesota needs to reexamine the term “physical control” to provide clarity and to strengthen the protection of the public from drunk driving.

Of course, the best plan of action whenever a person drinks alcohol is to have a plan ahead of time to completely avoid these scenarios altogether.  Sober planning is a great idea but it is not foolproof; plans change, people lose the ability to reason, and crimes can be committed.  But if someone is still able to realize that actual driving would be dangerous in his/her condition, what is the harm in allowing the person to use the vehicle as a shelter while sleeping it off?  I cannot think of any other crime that can be actively committed while being unconscious or sleeping (not including actions taken during sleepwalking episodes of course).  While an officer spends hours investigating, arresting, and processing an individual for sleeping it off in their vehicle, how many other actual drunk DRIVERS are endangering the public?  Is this a good use of limited law enforcement resources?

It is time for Minnesota to remove the “physical control” portion of the DWI crime from the statute.  We need to encourage people to refrain from DRIVING a vehicle, because driving the vehicle is the actual danger that we seek to prevent.  Criminalizing the exercise of “physical control” over a vehicle does nothing to prevent drunk driving, and it actually encourages drunk driving in certain situations.  Let’s focus on capturing and convicting those who actually drive drunk instead of wasting our time and resources on capturing and convicting people who could have driven drunk.

Been Caught Drunk-Driving?

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