Memorial Day is often viewed as the "unofficial start" of the summer season. Summer is typically a time of great celebrations, barbecues, fun with family and friends and drinking. As this summer season starts, it is important for all drivers to know and understand the laws and rules of the road, particularly with respect to driving under the influence (DUI). If you find yourself facing DUI charges at any point this summer (or at any other time), contact a New Jersey DUI lawyer at Helmer, Conley & Kasselman, P.A. as soon as possible for assistance.
What Does it Mean to “Operate” a Motor Vehicle for Purposes of New Jersey’s DUI Law?
In New Jersey, the offense of driving while intoxicated (“DWI” or “DUI”) is defined in Section 39:4-50 of the Motor Vehicles and Traffic Regulation title of the New Jersey Revised Statutes. Under the statutory language, it is a traffic offense for anyone to:
“operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug, or operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more by weight of alcohol in the defendant's blood . . . .”
Section 39:1-1 defines a “motor vehicle” as, “all vehicles propelled otherwise than by muscular power, excepting such vehicles as run only upon rails or tracks and motorized bicycles.” However, the statutes do not define what it means to “operate” a motor vehicle.
Were You “Operating” a Motor Vehicle When You Were Arrested?
Since the legislature did not define what it means to “operate” a motor vehicle for purposes of New Jersey’s DUI law, this means that it was left up to the courts to decide. The New Jersey courts have determined that a person will be deemed to be “operating” a vehicle under Section 39:4-50 if he or she:
- Is in control of the motor vehicle;
- Has the intention to operate the motor vehicle in a public place;
- Has taken action to place the motor vehicle in motion; and,
- There is a possibility that he or she could place the motor vehicle in motion.
While these elements may initially seem to limit the types of activities that are sufficient to support a DUI charge, the courts have used this test to determine that simply sitting in the driver’s seat can be enough to establish culpability for DUI. In one well-known case, the arresting officer followed the defendant to his car and then reached through the window to take the defendant’s keys before he could turn on the ignition. The court held that the defendant’s actions constituted “operation” of the vehicle under the four-factor test outlined above.
Additionally, being “in control” of the vehicle does not mean that you actually have to have the vehicle under control (in fact, drivers who are truly alcohol-impaired will not be in full control of their vehicles). For example, even sitting in the passenger’s seat with the key could be enough to establish control and operation under the right (or wrong) circumstances.
Limits on “Operation” of a Motor Vehicle
While the definition of “operation” is broad, it is not without limits. For example, if you are sitting in the passenger’s seat next to a designated driver, this could provide a strong argument against control. Also, New Jersey’s DUI law only applies to operation of motor vehicles on public roads; so, if you never got out of your driveway, the prosecution may lack the evidence it needs to convict you of DUI.
Do You Have a Defense to Your DUI? Contact a New Jersey DUI Lawyer Now
Our attorneys provide experienced and aggressive legal representation for individuals facing DUI charges in New Jersey. Regardless of whether you believe you may have been “operating” your vehicle at the time of your arrest, we encourage you to contact a New Jersey DUI lawyer to find out what defenses you have available. To schedule a confidential initial consultation at one of our convenient office locations, call 1-877-435-6371 or send us your contact information online now.