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Sleeping in a Parked Car in Pennsylvania Can Still Lead to a DUI Arrest

Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe news occasionally reports on people getting arrested for suspected DUI after police find them asleep in their parked vehicle. This raises the question of how one could be suspected of driving under the influence if the car is parked and you are not actually driving it. Pennsylvania’s DUI statute applies to more than just actual driving. A person may be found guilty of DUI if he or she is “in actual physical control of the movement of a vehicle” while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The definition of “actual physical control” is not very precise, though, and Pennsylvania courts have reached different conclusions under varying circumstances, often depending on the location of the vehicle.

One story reported in Pennsylvania about a year ago involved the arrest of a man found asleep in a parked car in Lowhill Township. He had reportedly been delivering newspapers early on a Sunday morning, when he stopped the car and fell asleep parked by the side of the road. Police claimed that the person had an open can of beer in the vehicle’s center console, as well as more unopened cans in the back seat. Chemical testing allegedly found that his blood alcohol content (BAC) exceeded the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

In the case described above, the arresting officer did not actually witness the person driving his vehicle. This is not a requirement under Pennsylvania law, though. The person was in the driver’s seat, and although he was asleep and the car was parked, he reportedly told the officer that he had been driving the car earlier to deliver newspapers. In cases in which Pennsylvania courts must determine whether people had “actual physical control,” they often look at whether or not the evidence suggests that they had been driving earlier.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court applied this standard in a 1981 case, Com. v. Matsinger, which involved a person found asleep in the driver’s seat of a van parked in a lane of oncoming traffic at about 3:30 a.m. The arresting officer testified that the defendant “reeked of alcohol,” and that the car’s engine was running, the transmission was in gear, and the headlights were on. Even without a direct eyewitness to the defendant driving the van, the court held that it was reasonable for a jury to find that the defendant had been driving the vehicle, and that the defendant’s operation of the vehicle resulted in it getting to the place where the officer found it.

The question of “actual physical control” is less clear in situations where there is no evidence that a defendant actually drove while under the influence. Several cases, such as 1994’s Com. v. Byers and 2009’s Solomon v. Com., have held that evidence of a person found asleep in a vehicle parked outside a bar is not sufficient to prove “actual physical control,” since the person may have been “sleeping it off” before driving. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court does not appear to have addressed the question directly, but it was critical of Byers’ holding in 1996 in Com. v. Wolen.

If you have been arrested or charged with DUI, you need the help of a knowledgeable and experienced DUI attorney to help you understand your rights and plan the best possible defense. Zachary B. Cooper has dedicated his law practice exclusively to DUI defense. We are available to help you 24/7. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us online or at (215) 542-0800.

More Blog Posts:

Anatomy of a Pennsylvania DUI Offense: Is Proof of “Impairment” Required in Pennsylvania “Drugged Driving” Cases? Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, October 1, 2014

Anatomy of a Pennsylvania DUI Offense: What Constitutes “Drugged Driving,” or Driving Under the Influence of a Controlled Substance? Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, August 26, 2014

How Is this Constitutional? Pennsylvania Police Arrest 13 in One Weekend at Delaware County “Sobriety Checkpoint”, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, August 12, 2014

Photo credit: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.