We have handled a lot of DUI cases in Florida that start when a police officer sees a person asleep in the driver’s seat of a vehicle. This scenario often results in a DUi arrest, although the police often do not follow the rules in making the DUI arrest. First, it should be noted that in Florida, a person can be arrested for DUI even though he/she is not driving. A person commits a DUI in Florida if he/she is driving or if he/she is in actual physical control of the vehicle. Actual physical control of a vehicle under the Florida DUI laws has been interpreted to mean being in the driver’s seat with the keys in the ignition (whether the vehicle is running or not) or being in the driver’s seat with the keys within arm’s reach.
However, when a police officer sees a person sleeping in his/her vehicle, that police officer is limited in how he/she can investigate the driver. The police officer may assume a person who is asleep in the driver’s seat while the car is running is drunk, but there are other explanations for this scenario. The person could be tired, sick or just taking a break with the air conditioning and/or radio on. There is nothing illegal about sleeping in a car off of the road while the vehicle is on. A police officer cannot detain a person based on an assumption that a person is committing a crime. Because sleeping in a vehicle that is running is not a crime and does not necessarily mean the person is drunk, a police officer cannot approach the person and detain him/her without specific evidence that a crime is being committed.
In a recent DUI case near Jacksonville, Florida, a police officer saw the defendant asleep in the driver’s seat of a running vehicle that was parked in a parking spot. The police officer assumed he was drunk but had no specific evidence to support that assumption. The police officer approached the defendant, parked directly behind his vehicle, shined a spotlight on the defendant, and then told him to roll his window down. After the defendant compiled, the police officer said he smelled an odor of alcohol coming from the defendant, saw bloodshot and glassy eyes, heard slurred speech and all of the usual observations police officers make in every DUI case. The police officer then arrested the defendant for DUI.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the DUI because the initial detention of the defendant was illegal. If the initial stop or detention is illegal, the subsequent evidence found and observed by the police officer is not admissible in court. In this case, the court found that the police officer parking right behind the defendant, shining his spotlight on him and telling him to roll down his window was a detention. The defendant could assume he was not free to leave at that point. Because the police officer did not have any specific evidence the defendant was committing a crime when he was detained (just a presumption), the detention by the police officer was found to be illegal.