Can I Get a DUI for Sleeping in My Car While Drunk?

How falling asleep in your vehicle after a night of drinking can sometimes get you charged with driving under the influence.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

In a few states—like California—you can be convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) only if there's proof that you were actually driving a vehicle. In these states, merely sleeping in your car while drunk isn't enough for a DUI conviction.

However, in the majority of states, believe it or not, actual driving isn't required for a DUI conviction. Although this might sound strange—after all, the offense is called "driving under the influence"—the laws of most states broadly define the offense in a way that can include just sitting (or even sleeping) in your car while drunk or under the influence of drugs.

This article explains exactly how states have expanded the reach of DUI laws by swapping out the term "driving" for verbiage that is broader. Though state laws differ somewhat, this article also explains the types of scenarios that can lead to a DUI conviction in states that have these broad definitions.

Can You Get a DUI for "Sleeping It Off" in Your Car?

In most states, it's certainly possible for a person who's sleeping it off in their car to be arrested for a DUI offense. But in these scenarios, the details matter quite a bit.

Operating or Being in Actual Physical Control of a Vehicle

In the majority of states—Arkansas, Nebraska, and Washington included—you can get a DUI for "operating" or "being in actual physical control" of a vehicle while under the influence. So, driving is sufficient but not required for a conviction.

States differ on exactly how they define operating or being in actual physical control. But the aim of these laws is the same: To prevent drunk driving before it begins. After all, a motorist who's drunk in the front seat with the keys in the ignition is just a few quick motions away from putting the car in gear and driving away.

Some Factors that Might Come Into Play

A judge or jury will generally look at all the circumstances of a case in determining whether an impaired motorist was operating or in actual physical control of the vehicle.

Important factors that courts will normally look to in determining whether a driver was operating or in actual physical control of a vehicle include:

  • whether the vehicle was running
  • where exactly the driver was inside the vehicle
  • whether the keys were in the ignition
  • whether the vehicle was operational, and
  • where the vehicle was parked.

In some states, the courts have created definitive, bright-line rules for what qualifies as operating or in actual physical control of a vehicle.

But in most states, judges and juries just look to the totality of the circumstances. Typically, the closer the driver was to being able to set the car in motion, the more likely the jury is to convict. So, an impaired motorist found sleeping in the back seat with the motor shut off might have a good shot at beating the charge. But a drunk motorist who's caught draped over the steering wheel with the car running is more likely to be convicted.

"Sleeping-It-Off" Defenses

A few states have a "sleeping-it-off" defense explicitly written in the law. In these states, a driver can establish a defense to a DUI charge by proving he or she chose to sleep it off in their vehicle instead of driving.

The prosecution has the burden of proving a DUI charge in court. But with a sleeping-it-off defense, it's usually up to the driver to prove its applicable.

Talk to a DUI Lawyer in Your Area

Because the law differs from place to place, it's important to get legal assistance from someone who knows the law in your area. If you've been arrested for driving under the influence and it's questionable whether you were driving or in actual physical control of a vehicle as defined by your state, you might have some good defenses.

A qualified DUI lawyer can tell you how the law applies to the facts of your case and help you decide on how best to handle your situation.

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