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Understanding New York’s DWI statute may be trickier than most realize

At first glance, New York’s DWI law may appear quite simple to comprehend. After all, the statute merely states that it is against the law for motorists to "operate a motor vehicle" in New York if they are intoxicated or impaired due to alcohol consumption.

However, many motorists may be surprised as to just how complex this law actually is, particularly in regard to how courts interpret the seemingly simply phrase “operate a motor vehicle.” In fact, during New York DWI cases, courts will routinely construe the terms “operate” and “motor vehicle” much more broadly than commonly believed.

What does it mean to "operate a motor vehicle" in New York?

The first of these two terms, "operate," has been defined by New York courts to mean any circumstance in which a person "intentionally does any act or makes use of any mechanical or electrical agency which alone or in sequence will set in motion the motive power of the vehicle."

Given this liberal definition, intoxicated motorists have been found guilty of DWIs in New York even when their vehicles were not in motion. Indeed, in a federal case applying New York law, Dalton v. Ashcroft, the court concluded that a motorist may be found guilty of drunk driving even if the vehicle is not running and the motorist is simply sleeping at the steering wheel. This particular court even noted that there was evidence that the vehicle in question never actually moved.

Surprisingly, this same court decision also recognized the possibly of upholding a DWI conviction even in situations in which the vehicle is not in working condition, or alternatively, the motorist does not know how to operate the vehicle. As is obvious from this decision, the term "operate" – as used in the context of New York DWI law – means significantly more than just driving a car.

What does "motor vehicle" mean?

Interestingly, however, this is not the end of the analysis as the phrase "motor vehicle" is also a term often misunderstood during New York DWI cases. For example, as used in New York’s DWI law, a motor vehicle is defined as "every vehicle operated or driven upon a public highway which is propelled by any power other than muscular power." This broad definition has led to some fascinating cases in New York, including one opinion that found that a lawnmower is actually a motor vehicle under New York law if operated on a public highway.

Legal complexities require legal assistance

Ultimately, navigating the complexities of New York DWI law can often be a difficult task, which is why it is always best to consult with a knowledgeable DWI defense attorney if you are facing drunk driving charges. A skilled attorney can review the facts of your arrest and help determine what your rights and options may be given your circumstances.