“Physical Control” of Your Car Versus DUI

A person caught driving – physically operating a motor vehicle – while under the influence of drugs or alcohol being charged with a DUI in Washington is something that everyone understands. However, what some people don’t realize is that having just “physical control” over a vehicle while intoxicated is also a criminal offense in this state.

What Does Physical Control Mean?

Essentially, Washington state laws say that a person just needs to have physical control over a motor vehicle while legally under the influence, and this can mean more than just driving. While the laws don’t define exactly what this type of control means, there are many situations in which a driver can be found to have physical control over a vehicle that they are not currently driving, including:

  • Sitting in your driver’s seat when your car is parked, something a person may do to sober up before driving
  • Sitting in your driver’s seat with your keys in the ignition and the car parked
  • Sitting in your driver’s seat when your car can’t move because you ran out of gas
  • Sitting in your car off to the side of the road with your keys in the ignition

Whether your conduct amounts to you having physical control over your vehicle will depend on your case and the facts of it. Legal representation is important, so if you’re facing a charge of having control over a vehicle while under the influence, speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney from Feldman & Lee about your case.

What Types of Defenses are Used in These Cases?

State laws allows for affirmative defenses against a charge of physical control of a vehicle while being under the influence, with an affirmative defense being a fact or set of facts you can prove in court that either mitigates or defeats the legal consequences in your case even if you’re found to have had control over your car. One such defense against this charge is proving that you drank alcohol, for example, between the time you had physical control over your vehicle and the time your blood alcohol levels were tested by law enforcement and found to be over the legal limit. The same applies to the consumption of marijuana.

The Punishment is Steep

A physical control over a vehicle while intoxicated charge carries the same penalties as a DUI in Washington. On its own as a first offense, this is a gross misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of up to one year in jail and a fine of $5,000. At the minimum, if you had a breath test result of under 0.15 and have no prior convictions for this type of offense or related offenses such as a DUI, you’re still likely to receive a fine, 24 consecutive hours of jail time, a 90-day suspension of your driver’s license, a drug and alcohol violation, and a probationary period of two to five years.

If your results come in at over 0.15 or you refused to consent to the test, you’re looking at the same minimum punishments but with more jail time – 48 hours – and a longer license suspension of 365 days. Once that suspension period is over, you will not be allowed to get your license back unless you have an Ignition Interlock Device installed in your car and maintained for at least one year, with the last four months of that period having no failed tests. These devices do not allow your car to be started until you blow into the mouthpiece, as they test your breath for alcohol consumption.

For people with prior DUI or related convictions, the penalties get even steeper, particularly when it comes to jail time and license suspension periods. If there is someone in the car who was under 16 when you were arrested, there are minimum fines that also apply starting at $1,000, and you’ll have to use the interlock device for a period of six months beyond what your offense requires.

Being arrested for having physical control over a vehicle while intoxicated may not seem as serious as a DUI, but in terms of penalties, it absolutely is. Contact an attorney at Feldman & Lee as soon as possible if you’re facing this charge.

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