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Can you get arrested for OWI just for sitting in a parked car?

Suppose you've been drinking and had been planning to drive. Realizing you're too intoxicated to do so safely, you decide to avoid driving and sleep it off in your car. To keep warm, you start the engine, but you don't have any plans to drive. While you're asleep, the police notice you. Can they arrest you for OWI just for being in the car while intoxicated?

Unfortunately, it depends. While it's completely understandable to try to sleep off the effects of alcohol in your car, the reality is that people have been arrested for drunk driving in a situation like this one. The issue is that you may be considered to be in control of the vehicle -- and that is an element of OWI.

The Iowa Supreme Court has defined the word "operating" (in "operating while intoxicated") to mean "the immediate, actual physical control over a motor vehicle that is in motion and/or has its engine running." Generally, if your keys are not in the ignition, you are not considered to be operating the vehicle. If you start the engine, however, you could legally be operating the vehicle even if it's parked.

How do you know whether you're breaking the law? There is no bright-line rule other than to avoid getting into a car entirely when you have been drinking. Whether you were actually operating a vehicle is, to some extent, a question of fact that can be argued.

When considering whether an intoxicated person was operating a motor vehicle, the courts generally use what's called a "totality of circumstances" test considering several factors:

  • Whether the vehicle was located on or off the roadway
  • Where the person was in the car (driver's seat, back seat, etc.)
  • Whether the keys were in our out of the ignition
  • Whether the vehicle was drivable

The clearest case of innocence would be one where the defendant was sleeping in the back seat with the keys in their pocket and the car was not only immobilized but parked in a driveway. In a situation where the defendant was asleep in the driver's seat with the engine on, in a fully operable vehicle parked on a public roadway, the a jury could find that sufficient for an OWI conviction. Additionally, a jury can consider evidence of whether you drove to that location while intoxicated.

If you have been arrested for OWI in Iowa, don't give up hope. There may be defenses available to you depending on the facts of your case. Discuss your situation with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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