What constitutes “operation of a motor vehicle” under New Jersey DWI Law?

“Operation” is a crucial element that the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt when prosecuting an individual for driving while intoxicated (DWI). There is some important case law in New Jersey regarding what constitutes “operation” sufficient to satisfy the State’s burden of proof. First, an operator of a motor vehicle is defined as a person who is in actual physical control of the vehicle. One can be an operator without driving. State v. Wright, 107 N.J. 488. Furthermore, when one, in an intoxicated state, places himself behind the wheel of a motor vehicle and not only intends to operate it in a public place, but actually attempts to do so and there is a possibility of motion, he has operated the vehicle within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a). State v. Mulcahy, 107 N.J. 467 (1987). Moreover, in the landmark case of State v. Daly, 64 N.J. 122 (1973), a person left a tavern at closing time, entered his car in the tavern’s parking lot and started the engine to remain warm while “sleeping off” his intoxicated state. The court found that he did not have the requisite intent to operate his vehicle. In addition to starting the engine, evidence of intent to drive or move the vehicle at the time must appear. Finally, in State v. Sweeney, 40 N.J. 359 (1963), the court held that a person operates a motor vehicle under the influence of an intoxicating liquor, within the meaning of NJSA 39:4-50, when, in that condition, he or she “enters a stationary vehicle, on a public highway or in a place devoted to public use, turns on the ignition, starts and maintains the motor in operation and remains in the driver’s seat behind the steering wheel, with the intent to move the vehicle.”

As you can see, intent is a key element that the State must prove. We had a client come in recently who is charged with DWI in New Jersey. He was sleeping in his vehicle with the car running and with the driver’s seat reclined when he was approached by a police officer and charged with drinking and driving. With the case law discussed above it appears we have a very solid defense against the DWI charge because the State will be unable to prove operation since the driver was sleeping in the vehicle and the seat was reclined, making it almost impossible that he intended to operate the vehicle. The State has to prove this element beyond a reasonable doubt and it appears in that case that they will be unable to do so.