Sleeping it Off – Can You Be Convicted of DWI for Sleeping in Your Car?

Very often the question arises - can I be convicted of Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) if I decide to “sleep it off” before driving?  The answer is complicated.  However, the law in New Jersey tends to favor the arguably responsible action of waiting to sober up before driving. 

In New Jersey, in order to convict someone of DWI, the prosecutor must prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt.  One of those elements is “operation.”  Normally, DWI arrests arise out of a motor vehicle stop, in which case the officer witnessed the defendant driving a vehicle – so the question of “operation” is irrelevant.  However, in some situations, such as motor vehicle accidents, the operation is not witnessed by the officer.  While the prosecutor can rely on the testimony of other witnesses, the prosecutor does not necessarily have to provide direct evidence that the defendant was driving a car. The law only requires proof that the defendant had control of his/her vehicle and had recently driven or intended to drive.  The question of intent to drive is normally at the heart of cases in which someone is found sleeping in the vehicle.

In State v. Daly, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that a person sleeping in his car in the parking lot of the bar where he was drinking should not have been found guilty of DWI.  In that matter, which is the controlling case on this issue, a police officer found Mr. Daly asleep in his car in the parking lot of a bar with the engine running but the headlights off.  Mr. Daly admitted to the police officer that he was intoxicated but claimed he was trying to “sleep it off.”  He told the officer he was not going to drive his vehicle until he was sober.  He claimed to have turned the engine on in order to heat the car.  

Mr. Daly was convicted of DWI in Municipal Court and a Superior Court Judge upheld that conviction.  He appealed to the Appellate Division and his conviction was reversed.  The State Supreme Court affirmed the reversal.  The court found that Mr. Daly could not be convicted of “operating” his car without evidence from which the court could clearly infer that he intended to move his vehicle.  The court noted that the bar where Mr. Daly was parked closed at 2:00 a.m.  The arrest was at 3:20 a.m.  Therefore, Mr. Daly had been in his car for at least one (1) hour and twenty (20) minutes without driving when the police officer found him.  The court found that was contrary to the prosecutor’s argument that Mr. Daly had intended to move his vehicle while intoxicated. 

In summary, in order to convict someone of DWI, the State must present sufficient evidence that the defendant drove or intended to drive the vehicle he was found in.  Absent proof beyond a reasonable doubt of this requirement, a person cannot be found guilty of DWI.

A DWI conviction in New Jersey can have a significant impact on your life.  The criminal attorneys at Hoagland, Longo, Moran, Dunst & Doukas, LLP are experienced in the intricacies of DWI law.  Should you have any questions or wish to schedule a free initial consultation, please do not hesitate to contact me at or at 732-545-4717.