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 firstname.lastname@example.org.