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Wisconsin case clarifies OWI law

A night out on the town, followed by falling asleep in a car, almost proved costly for a Janesville, Wisconsin man. Apparently, falling asleep in the driver's seat of a car parked in front of a bar does not constitute an OWI arrest according to a state appeals court.

The Janesville man was found slumped over the steering wheel of his running car in front of a local bar. The police officer woke up the defendant, who admitted he had been drinking. The man agreed to take a breathalyzer test and he registered a .15 blood-alcohol content, which is over the legal limit.

The man went to court and was convicted of OWI, but appealed the decision on the argument that putting your hands on the steering wheel should not be considered operating a vehicle.

On appeal, the District 4 Court of Appeals agreed that while the city had enough evidence to convict the defendant of OWI, there wasn't any proof that he actually drove the vehicle.

An employee of the defendant testified that she drove him from one bar, parked in front of another bar to pick up her daughter, and planned to drive him home. She had given him the keys and told him to wait in the car until she was ready to leave with her daughter.

While circumstantial evidence made it appear that the defendant was going to drive the vehicle, there was no indication that he put the car in motion, which is required under the statute, according to the appeals opinion. Only an experienced criminal law attorney could have made this argument and got the OWI charge overturned.

According to the presiding judge, Paul Higginbotham, "If the city meant to say that turning on the ignition of a motor vehicle and manipulating the steering wheel constitutes "operate" within the (statutes) that is a correct statement of the law. But...the city plainly intended to convey to the jury that "operate" includes turning on the ignition, or, in the alternative, placing hands on the steering wheel. We know of no case law that stands for this proposition."

Traffic violations, particularly an OWI, can have serious criminal consequences. This charge could have resulted in fines, revocation or suspension of his driver's license, or jail time.

This case highlights and clarifies the definition of operating in OWI law.

Source: Beloit Daily News, "Appeals court overturns DUI," Kevin Murphy, Jan. 14, 2012

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