DUI without driving makes little sense

Daryl Fleck was drunk and asleep in his car in the parking lot of his apartment building when someone called the police.

Fleck’s car was parked in his assigned spot, his keys in the center console. The car’s engine was cold to the touch and police found no evidence that Fleck had recently driven.

Nonetheless, Fleck was arrested and convicted of driving under the influence, a conviction that was appealed until it appeared before the Minnesota Supreme Court.

On Jan. 21, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the decision, ruling that the sleeping man was in control of the vehicle. The court cited a 1992 ruling stating that “physical control” includes situations where a drunk person is found in a parked vehicle that might be started and driven.

Under this interpretation of the law, sleeping off a night of drinking is treated the same as attempting to drive home. Essentially, a person can be guilty of driving drunk without having driven.

While I understand the rationale behind these laws that have legitimate intentions of discouraging drunk driving, I have a problem with the overly broad nature of these laws that do not take motive into account in any way.

In Justice Alan Page’s seven-page decision, he wrote that a jury could reasonably determine that “Fleck, having been found intoxicated, alone, and sleeping behind the wheel of his own vehicle with the keys in the vehicle’s console, was in a position to exercise dominion or control over the vehicle and that he could, without too much difficulty, make the vehicle a source of danger.”

The question is how do you make this determination?

Isn’t a person drinking inside a bar with their keys in their pocket “in a position to exercise dominion or control over the vehicle?”

Couldn’t they, “without too much difficulty, make the vehicle a source of danger?” Where do you draw the line?

Should all gun owners be charged with murder because they have the potential to do so? Of course not. While that’s not a perfectly analogous example, I think it points to the illogical nature of these laws.

I should make it perfectly clear that I’m not arguing for Fleck’s innocence. Fleck had three prior drunken driving convictions and is by no means an example of responsible decision making.

What I’m afraid of is that Fleck’s reputation allowed the jury to justify the conviction, thus expanding on a precedent that incorporates presence in an undriven car into the definition of drunk driving.

But what I’m most afraid of is the message this sends to potential drunk drivers leaving the bar.

Suppose the bar just closed and you’re alone, intoxicated and without any alternate means of transportation; what do you do? Do you sit in your car and await arrest for DUI, or risk driving home knowing that getting caught would result in the same penalty? In this situation, there’s little motivation not to drive.

I find great issue with a law that punishes people for doing the responsible thing and choosing not to endanger the lives of themselves and others.

Brent Fischer can be reached at bafischer@stthomas.edu.

2 Replies to “DUI without driving makes little sense”

  1. “Isn’t a person drinking inside a bar with their keys in their pocket “in a position to exercise dominion or control over the vehicle?”

    With all due respect Mr. Fischer, the logic behind your argument is flawed.
    One whom has keys in their pocket in a bar, even if intoxicated, is not in a position to “exercise dominion…” because they are not inside the vehicle. That would be like trying to argue that carrying bullets in your pocket is attempted murder in the absence of a gun.

    As for motive, motive is irrelevant in instances such as this. It’s all about intent [how]. The crime for which Fleck was being tried was Driving Under The Influence, which, as the law is written, doesn’t take motive [why, he was “driving” drunk] into account [even if the person wasn’t even driving].

    I do think that perhaps a new law should be written for cases such as this, to avoid confusion [ex. murder vs. assault with a deadly weapon]. I will agree that it seems absurd that one can be found guilty of “driving under the influence” simply by proving intent to “potentially” drive under the influence. I do however understand the ruling considering the facts of the case, with the law as it’s written, and the precident which was set in 1992.

  2. While I don’t think the law tends to punish people for doing the “responsible” thing, I agree that far too often the broad language of law becomes a detriment to those it was established to protect. In my understanding of the law the mindset seems to be that it is irresponsible to be anything but a passenger while intoxicated. Unfortunately, there is a lot of gray area that is ignored to maintain that ideology.

    In looking further into Mr. Fleck’s situation (he was in his apartment’s parking garage, apparently), there are other even more ridiculous situations surrounding drunk-driving related incidents in Minnesota.

    This article comments on a drunk-driving related charge for a man who was drinking in his home before going to his car to listen to his stereo. While that is absurd, he was in “physical control” of the car.

    Another man was trying to operate a vehicle as it was being towed and still got a drunk-driving related charge.

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