What Does It Mean to Operate a Vehicle Under Indiana DUI Laws?

In Indiana, a DUI is officially called an OWI – operating while intoxicated. It is sometimes also called OVWI, or operating a vehicle while intoxicated. But what does it mean to “operate” a vehicle versus driving one? And how might this legal term affect the outcome of your OWI case?

The Indianapolis DWI defense law firm of Rathburn Law Office P.C. takes a closer look.

If you would like to know more information about the types of DUI field tests, view this page.

Operating Versus Driving

Most states use the terms DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated). The key term is “driving,” which differs from Indiana’s use of “operating.”

In most states, there is a lower threshold to meet the legal definition of driving. In other words, it’s easier to get cited for a DWI or DUI. For instance, in many states, driving could simply mean putting the key in the ignition or turning the vehicle on.

Indiana has a higher burden of proof. “Operating” a vehicle is not always as simple as a defendant may believe. The exact facts of an OWI case can complicate whether the proper legal standard has been met. For that reason, you should consult a knowledgeable Indianapolis OWI defense attorney.

How “Operating” Is Defined

Indiana Code § 9-13-2-117.5 defines operate as “to navigate or otherwise be in actual physical control of a vehicle, watercraft, off-road vehicle or snowmobile.”

One way to be acquitted of an OWI charge is to show that the state cannot prove the element of “operating.” On the one hand, if a police officer pulls over a vehicle driving on the highway, “operating” is fairly easy to establish.

But it can be difficult to show that an OWI suspect was operating the vehicle where:

  • An accident has already occurred.
  • The officer does not actually observe the vehicle moving.
  • The OWI suspect was found asleep in the driver’s seat.

In one case, the Indiana courts explained what operating means: “The operator of a motor vehicle is a person who drives or is in actual physical control of a motor vehicle upon a highway.”

The court noted that the following factors should be looked at:

  • Where was the defendant’s vehicle located when it was found?
  • Was the vehicle in motion when it was found?
  • In what position was the automatic transmission?
  • Evidence that the defendant was seen operating the vehicle prior to being found;
  • Any other evidence leading to a reasonable inference that the vehicle was in operation.

In another case, the court agreed that starting a car engine alone isn’t enough to “operate” the vehicle. The engine and lights were running, but the defendant was asleep in the driver’s seat. Although the vehicle was found partially in the roadway, it was also partially in a parking space. Either way, there weren’t enough facts to conclude the defendant was operating the vehicle.

In still another case, a vehicle was found in park, engine running, with the defendant sleeping in the driver’s seat. The defendant admitted to driving the vehicle two hours before and tested above the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration.

But the court determined this was insufficient to show that the defendant had earlier operated the vehicle while intoxicated. Blood alcohol levels vary with time and the state failed to prove the vehicle had actually been driven.

A skilled Indianapolis DUI defense lawyer will be aware of these and other cases. Your lawyer will hold the state responsible for proving its argument in light of the evidence and existing case law. Where the state cannot do so, the charges may be dismissed.

The Bottom Line in Your OWI Case

Words and phrases used in statutes have precise legal meanings that must be proven. The burden of proof in a criminal case, like one involving OWI, rests with the state. Never assume that because you’ve been charged or even arrested that the government has proven its case.

Let the dedicated team at Rathburn Law Office P.C. go to work defending you. Give us a call today to learn more.