Running Engine Without Intent To Operate Insufficient For DWI

Submitted by New Jersey DWI Attorney, Jeffrey Hark

You may have heard that you can be arrested and charged with DWI for sitting in your car with the keys in the ignition or the engine running regardless of whether you are actually driving. It is true that sitting in a vehicle with the engine running even if the vehicle is parked can land you with a DWI, but not without more.

Sate v. Silva, decided by the Appellate division on March 19, 2015 sheds some light on this topic. Ms. Silva was arrested while in her vehicle with a friend. The vehicle was stopped but the engine was running. Ms. Silva was asked by her trial judge whether she was operating the vehicle while intoxicated to which she replied “yes.” But the judge defined ‘operating’ for her by stating “by operating it can mean as simple as the engine running at that time.” This is technically true but it misrepresents the legal standard which is there must be an intention to operate beyond the mere fact that the engine is on. At trial the engine being on may be indicative of this intent as the element of operation can be proven with direct or circumstantial evidence.

Defining Intent to Operate in DWI

But this case ended in a guilty plea and guilty pleas require a factual basis. This means that a defendant can’t plead guilty unless they present facts sufficient to satisfy the elements of the crime of which they are accused. Let’s use murder as an example since most people are familiar with this crime. A defendant could not plead guilty and state in their plea that they killed X out of self-defense. Since the hypothetical defendant is invoking self-defense they do not meet the elements of murder. In this case Ms. Silva told the judge that she and her friend were sitting in the vehicle trying to figure out who was going to drive. This does not yet show an intent to operate the vehicle by Ms. Silva sufficient as a factual basis for a guilty plea.

In this case Ms. Silva appealed the trial court’s denial of her motion to withdraw her guilty plea and the Appellate Division reviewed de novo, or in other words as if it were the first court to hear the case. It considered the facts described above and reversed the denial of the motion and remanded for trial.

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