DUI – Understanding “Actual Physical Control” of the Vehicle

Pennsylvania, similar to every other state, maintains a driving under the influence statue (DUI-75Pa. C. S. A. section 3802). In Pennsylvania a person may not drive, operate, or be in actual physical control of the movement of a vehicle after consuming a sufficient amount of alcohol or controlled substance to render the individual incapable of safely driving, operating, or being in actual physical control of the movement of the vehicle. The criminal consequences associated with DUI are dependent on the level of intoxication, prior offenses, and whether accident resulted from the incident. The prosecution can establish intoxication through the observation of the arresting officer or through chemical analysis of bodily fluids.

The successful defense of a DUI charge requires that the attorney review the basis for the initial traffic stop, the administration of possible field sobriety tests, and the chemical analysis of the defendant’s blood or urine. In addition to these issues, it is also important to question if the prosecution can meet the elements of the offense.
While many attorneys may over look the actual physical control element of a DUI there is a long history of cases which continue to debate this issue. In many cases an individual is stopped under the suspicion of DUI when the car is parked on the side of the road, in a parking lot, or in some way not actually moving. It is important to understand that the prosecution need not establish that the car was moving at the time of the offense but only that the driver was in actual physical control of the movement of the vehicle.
In Pennsylvania our Supreme Court has found that actual physical control is based on the totality of the circumstances including the location of the vehicle, whether the engine was running, and whether there was other evidence indicating that the defendant had driven the vehicle at some point prior to the arrival of police. See Commonwealth v. Wolen, 546 Pa. 448 (1996). Examples of these findings include cases where police found vehicles protruding into traffic lanes, drivers sleeping in their cars on the side of the road with the engines on, and drivers asleep in a parking lot with the engine running.

While our Supreme Court has issued several rulings on the meaning of actual control, it is important to keep in mind that actual physical control is still an issue of fact which the defense attorney can argue to a judge or jury depending upon the circumstances surrounding the case. A DUI conviction subjects an individual to substantial fines, possible incarceration, and loss of his or her driver’s license. If you are charged with a DUI it is important that your attorney consider all possible pre-trial motions and whether the prosecution can meet necessary elements of the offense. An aggressive defense is critical to success when faced with a DUI.