In an unprecedented ruling, the Virginia Supreme Court has found that simply sitting behind the wheel of a car with the keys in the ignition while intoxicated is enough to be found guilty of drunk driving.
The case in question started out in mundane fashion. In September 2009 Alexandria police picked up Jean Paul Enriquez who they found illegally parked, sleeping behind the wheel of his car in a bus zone.
The officers found it difficult to wake up Enriquez and when he exited the vehicle the officers reported observing the smell of alcohol and marijuana. Court documents indicate that Enriquez failed field sobriety tests, leading to his arrest.
Enriquez was subsequently convicted of a DUI, a conviction that was upheld on appeal.
In previous cases, the determining issue had been the question of what, as a matter of law, constitutes operating a motor vehicle. Virginia courts have issued different rulings on that question, depending on the specific details of the case.
For example, in a case where a driver who had run into a ditch and was found with the keys in the ignition, motor running and wheels spinning, the court upheld the conviction.
In contrast, the court had reversed other similar DUI convictions, including one in which an driver was seated behind the wheel with the keys in the ignition and the motor off (officers could not recall wether the keys were in the “on” or “off” position.
That particular precedent mirrors the Enriquez case quite closely where, again, the motor of the car was off and the arresting officer could not recall whether the keys had been in the “on” or “off” position at the time of the arrest.
Rather than follow the existing, if unclear, precedent the court stated the following:
“From the foregoing, we establish the rule that when an intoxicated person is seated behind the steering wheel of a motor vehicle on a public highway and the key is in the ignition switch, he is in actual physical control of the vehicle and, therefore, is guilty of operating the vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.”
This would appear to significantly lower the standard of what constitutes drunk driving. Merely sitting behind the wheel with the keys in the ignition, the Virginia Supreme Court seems to indicate, is enough to constitute “operating a motor vehicle.”
Virginia drivers? Apparently they can look forward to the possibility of drunk driving convictions with no driving necessary.