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DUI Charge for “Backseat Driver” Not Unprecedented

by | Feb 28, 2013

A 23-year-old Virginia woman was arrested for DUI recently, although she was never actually in the driver’s seat. As far as we know, she never had possession of the keys and she never was reportedly seated in the back seat at the time the crash occurred.

Our D.C. DUI lawyers know that as strange as this sounds, it’s not unprecedented.

Here’s what happened, according to The Roanoke Times:

The woman and four others were in a late-90’s model Saturn traveling on Virginia 24 when she allegedly scooted toward the edge of her seat in the back, reached over the driver and grabbed the steering wheel. This reportedly caused the vehicle to swerve off the road and flip. As a result, all five occupants were transported to the hospital, though all survived.

She was charged with reckless driving and misdemeanor DUI.

As the prosecutor explained to the media, a DUI charge can be filed against anyone who takes or has physical control of a motor vehicle. It’s the same in D.C. as it is in Virginia.

In D.C., there are three potential charges someone in this situation might face. There is DWI, under D.C. Code 50-2201.05(b) in which prosecutors have to show that you were:

  1. Either operating or in physical control of the motor vehicle.
  2. That at the time you were tested, your blood alcohol concentration was at 0.08 percent or higher.

This is a lower threshold for DUI, which requires prosecutors to show both of the above, in addition to the fact that you were actually impaired as the result of either drug or alcohol consumption.

Then there is OWI, which is perhaps the easiest for prosecutors to prove, as they must only show that your ability to operate a vehicle was noticeably impaired by your consumption of alcohol. No blood or breath testing required.

But the common thread in each of these, as in the Virginia case, is that you were in physical control of the vehicle.

You may have heard of cases in which a person was arrested for DUI, even though they were pulled over at the side of the road, sleeping in the back seat with the car running only for warmth. It’s the same kind of concept, except this case has the added reckless driving charge because when someone allegedly grabs the wheel, there is more of an active role in the situation.

Of course, there are some scenarios when a person may grab the wheel out of reflex or for safety. For example, if the driver falls asleep or is also intoxicated, there  are some situations where such action might be warranted, even if it doesn’t always have the desired positive outcome.

That’s one possible defense.

We do know, however, that the Virginia Supreme Court recently upheld a conviction in a very similar case there. In 2003, a man was found guilty in 2003 of DUI after prosecutors say he was drunk and grabbed the steering wheel of a relative’s vehicle and caused it to crash.

In this case, the defendant’s version of events was not supported by others in the vehicle. Additionally, hospital staff reported she was screaming, shouting and using profanity and abusive language toward them. That is not likely to aid her credibility with regard to her interpretation of the events that evening. She reportedly made no effort to hide the fact that she was intoxicated, but went on to say it didn’t matter because she wasn’t the person driving.

But it does matter, even though officers indicated the act was carried out more as a misguided attempt at horseplay than anything malicious.

This defendant’s license had already been revoked due to a 2011 DUI conviction.

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Scrofano Law, PC at 202-765-3175.