OWI in a Motionless Car

DUI Motionless Car

Lansing Michigan OWI Attorney

Can you be charged and convicted of Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) if your car isn’t even running? The answer is maybe. It depends on the surrounding facts.

“Operating” a Motor Vehicle

Whether or not you can be convicted of an OWI hinges on whether the prosecution can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were “operating” a motor vehicle on a public roadway. In 2010 we found out that “operating” doesn’t necessarily mean “driving” when Mr. Lechleitner (whose BAC was over the legal limit of .08) was attempted to push his car off an icy road when an oncoming motorist swerved and ran into a guardrail which subsequently caused another motorist to crash into that car resulting in death. Mr. Lechleitner’s defense was that pushing the car with the ignition off was not “operating” it.[1] The Michigan Court of Appeals felt otherwise. In failing to adopt the defendant’s proposed “cause to function” standard for operating, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that a defendant is “operating” a motor vehicle when it is placed is motion or in a position that poses a significant risk of causing a collision. In other words, the car doesn’t have to be motion for an OWI.

Evidence of Operating a Vehicle: Case-by-Case Basis

Foot on the Brake While In Drive

There’s no bright line rule that says is A,B, and C are present then the motorist is operating for purposed of an OWI. It doesn’t really work like that. Instead, each case is different and circumstantial, as well as direct evidence, will dictate what constitutes “operating” for purposes of the OWI statute. In People v Wood[2], the defendant was found in a vehicle, engine running, and the automatic transmission in drive. Mr. Wood’s foot was on the brake pedal which kept the car from moving. The Michigan Supreme Court held he was “operating” the vehicle. The Court defined the term in relation to the danger the DUI statute seeks to prevent—the collision of a vehicle being operated by an intoxicated person. Once a car is put into motion, it poses a significant risk of collision. Mr. Wood’s vehicle would have been set in motion had his foot slipped off the brake pedal. The Court reasoned that he had not “returned the vehicle to a position posing no risk of collision with other persons or property.”

Asleep Behind the Wheel

In People v Spencley[3], the defendant was parked partially on a highway shoulder and partially in a motel driveway. The lights were on the engine was running. Mr. Spencley was asleep sitting in the car when officers approached him and subsequently placed him under arrest for OWI. The Court analysis didn’t focus so much on the operating aspect as it did that the officer’s did not have probable cause to place defendant under arrest as Mr. Spencley did not “operate” the motor vehicle infront of them. Generally, misdemeanors have to be committed in the officer’s presence for a warrantless arrest. There is an exception. An officer may place someone under arrest for OWI even if it wasn’t committed in their presence but only if there was an accident. In this case, there was not. The remedy was to suppress the evidence of the defendant’s BAC. A defendant could very well be considered to be operating a motor vehicle while asleep behind the wheel. It’s a case-by-case basis.

Using a Car as a Shelter as Opposed to Transportation

In People v Burton[4], the defendant was found in his truck at a golf course. His seatbelt was on, the engine running, and the gear was either in park or neutral. He admitted to driving on one side of the parking lot of the golf course to the other. The Court found that there was no evidence that the defendant intended to use his truck as a motor vehicle as opposed to shelter. The mere fact that the engine was running is not enough to prove intent to put it in motion. The lack of motion in this case was due to the truck being in park or neutral, which is distinguishable from the lack of motion in People v Wood as his foot being on the brake was what kept the car motionless.

Lansing Michigan OWI Lawyer

If you have been charged with an OWI, you need an experienced OWI attorney representing you. If you are charged with a drunk driving offense while your car was not in motion, you may have defenses that could get your case dismissed. Call Austin Legal Services, PLC today to speak to a Michigan DUI lawyer for a free consultation at (517) 614-1983.

Defending OWI charges throughout Michigan in the counties of Ingham, Eaton, Clinton, Gratiot, Calhoun, Kent, Livingston, Jackson, Barry in the cities of Lansing, East Lansing, Mason, St. Johns, Ithaca, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Brighton, Howell, Jackson.


[1] Peo v Lechleitner, 291 Mich App 56 (2010)

[2] Peo v Wood, 450 Mich 399 (1995)

[3] Peo v Spencley, 197 Mich App 505 (1992)

[4] Peo v Burton, 252 Mich App 130 (2002)