Operation or use of a vehicle constitutes some of the elements of a DUI, but what is meant by “operating a vehicle?” The common law definition of “operation” usually includes the actual physical handling or manipulation of the electrical or mechanical controls of a motor vehicle, including the starting of the vehicle’s engine. It is important to note that a vehicle does not have to be in motion to be operated. However, there must be evidence that the defendant exercised some control or manipulation over the vehicle, such as steering or braking, even if the vehicle is in motion. Evidence that the defendant was inside a moving but non-running vehicle, without additional supporting evidence, does not constitute sufficient evidence of “operating” the vehicle. However, it has been held that grabbing the steering wheel and stepping on the accelerator of a vehicle constitutes “operating” the vehicle even if another person is driving the vehicle.
The “operation” of a vehicle requires the showing of an intent by the defendant to set the vehicle in motion. The starting of the vehicle’s engine usually constitutes the showing of such an intent, and a person found alone in a non-moving vehicle whose engine is running is usually held to be “operating” the vehicle, even if the person was found asleep or unconscious. Even if a vehicle whose engine is running is temporarily disabled or stuck in mud or snow, the person found behind the wheel may nevertheless be found to be “operating” the vehicle.
Some courts, it should be noted, have held that a person found asleep behind the wheel of a non-moving vehicle whose engine was running was not “operating” the vehicle for purposes of a drinking-driving statute. In most cases of this sort, the defendant’s vehicle was found parked in a parking lot or similar area and not on or next to the highway, thus lessening both the inference that the defendant recently drove the vehicle and the intent to set the vehicle in motion. As an example, a case in Kentucky in which a defendant was found asleep behind the wheel of a vehicle whose engine was not running but whose key was in the ignition and turned to the “on” position, was held not to be “operating” the vehicle.