The Element of Operation (vs. Driving) in A NJ DWI Prosecution

N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a), the DWI Statute, prohibits “a person who operates a motor vehicle while under the influence . . . .” The statute does not define “operation.” Case law has over the years, defined operation. Case law, distinguishable from statutory law, is a reported decision from a higher court that interprets statutory law.

New Jersey Courts (case law) have construed operation as it applies to the DWI Statute broadly, broader than “driving” in the classic sense. In other words, the State in a NJ DWI prosecution does not have to present a witness who saw the defendant “driving” to prove “operation.”  Generally, there are three ways for the State to prove operation in a NJ DWI prosecution: (1) observation of a defendant driving, (2) defendant’s admission (of driving), and (3) circumstantial evidence that the defendant drove the vehicle to the place where found, or that the defendant intended to move the vehicle.

The State is required to prove each element of their case, including the element of operation, beyond a reasonable doubt. This burden never shifts (to the defendant). Many defendants believe that they must disprove the State’s version of a case. This mindset is wholly inaccurate and can lead to an ineffectual defense where for example, a defendant takes the stand when the State has not even met their legal burden of proof.

The third method of proof above (that the defendant drove or intended to drive) often presents fact-patterns that fall within the proverbial gray area of the law, and are thorny for courts, the prosecution, and defense. These cases are very fact-sensitive. In other words, whether the State can prove operation is highly contingent on the particular set of facts. For example, if a defendant is intoxicated behind the wheel of a car in a position other than a normal position for parking (e.g. on the shoulder of the Parkway, or in the middle of a roadway), courts have found sufficient circumstantial evidence of operation. Courts have also found operation where a defendant puts the keys in the ignition and shows evidence of an intent to move the vehicle.  Conversely, Courts have ruled against the state and for the defense where the evidence does not establish intent to drive, but something else, like simply keeping the engine warm while sitting in the car. Courts have found insufficient evidence of operation where the defendant was behind the wheel of a car parked lawfully in a driveway sleeping with the engine off (because for example, a reasonable alternative explanation is that the defendant could have simply come out of the house to “sleep it off” with no intent to drive). Courts have also found insufficient proof of operation where the defendant was behind the wheel of a parked car but did not have a “present intent” to drive.

Cases involving cars that are not “moving” (i.e. driven in the classic sense) are extremely fact-sensitive. Again, the State (the prosecution) has the constitutional burden to prove every element of a DWI offense, including “operation,” beyond a reasonable doubt. A not guilty finding (or a dismissal) is possible if these cases are handled and analyzed properly.