Drunk But Not DUI

Behind wheel drunk, but legal

High court rules there’s no evidence woman touched car controls
By Steven Elbow

A person simply sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked, idling car
cannot be charged with drunken driving, the state Supreme Court said

The court ruled that a Cross Plains woman found intoxicated at the
wheel of her parked car was not guilty of drunken driving because there
is no evidence she ever touched the controls of the car.

The case involves Kristin Haanstad, whom police found intoxicated in
the driver’s seat of her idling Chevrolet Cavalier in Baer Park in Cross
Plains on May 26, 2003.

According to court records, Haanstad had been drinking at a bar for
several hours when she handed her keys to a man she was with. The man
drove Haanstad and a companion to Baer Park, where he had left his
vehicle. The man parked Haanstad’s car next to his vehicle and got out of
the car, leaving Haanstad’s car running with the lights on. He helped his
companion into his vehicle and returned to Haanstad’s car, where Haanstad
had slid from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat to let the man into
the car so the two could discuss their relationship. She sat with her
body and feet toward the man in the passenger seat, never touching the
controls of the car.

At about 12:30 a.m., a Cross Plains officer approached the car, and
despite the fact that Haanstad explained she had not driven the car,
asked her to perform sobriety tests, then arrested her for drunken

The case was thrown out by Dane County Circuit Judge Diane Nicks, but
the state Appeals Court reversed Nicks’ decision, ruling that Haanstad
was in fact operating the vehicle and was guilty of drunken driving.

The Supreme Court today reversed the Appeals Court ruling because
there was no evidence that Haanstad actually operated the car.

In a 6-0 decision – Justice Jon Wilcox didn’t participate – Justice
Louis Butler wrote that state statute specifically spells out what
constitutes the operation of a motor vehicle.

The word “operate,” the law reads, “means the physical manipulation or
activation of any of the controls of a motor vehicle necessary to put it
in motion,” Butler noted.

“The village does not dispute, and the Court of Appeals concluded,
that Haanstad never physically manipulated or activated any of the
vehicle’s controls. … Haanstad simply sat in the driver’s seat with her
feet and body pointed toward the passenger seat,” Butler wrote.

Butler drew a sharp distinction between Haanstad’s case and a case
presented by the village as precedent. In that case a man was charged
with drunken driving after he was found sleeping behind the wheel of his
pickup truck on an interstate emergency ramp. The defendant admitted
driving the truck to the spot where officers found him.

“In contrast, the evidence here is undisputed that Haanstad did not
drive the car to the point where the officer found her behind the wheel,”
Butler wrote.

The village never claimed that Haanstad tried to drive the car or even
touched the controls.

“As the Circuit Court judge so aptly stated, ‘If she is guilty, she is
guilty of sitting while intoxicated,’ ” Butler wrote.


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