High Court Affirms Conviction

August 15, 2006 By LYNNE TUOHY, Courant Staff Writer

Responsible drunks don’t put, or leave, the key in the ignition.

The state Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that a key in the
ignition, even if the engine is not running, is grounds for charging an
intoxicated person with operating a motor vehicle under the
influence.

The court upheld the conviction of Andrew Haight, who was found asleep
behind the wheel of his legally parked Lexus by a New Canaan police
officer just after midnight Oct. 20, 2001. His car key was in the
ignition, in either the “off” or “accessory” position – a deduction based
on the chimes that sounded when Officer Kevin J. Dowling opened the car
door.

“[State law] prohibits operating a motor vehicle while under the
influence rather than merely driving a motor vehicle under the
influence,” Justice Peter T. Zarella wrote. “It is well settled that
‘operating’ encompasses a broader range of conduct than does
‘driving.’

State laws, however, don’t articulate just what that difference
is.

So the Supreme Court looked back to a 1939 ruling, in a case in which
a car was driven into a New London bank. When police arrived, they found
an intoxicated Lyman Swift sitting behind the wheel attempting to start
the car while his companion was trying to push it. Swift insisted he
hadn’t been driving the car and had moved to the driver’s seat only when
his companion got out to attempt to push the car.

The Supreme Court in that case ultimately upheld the instruction given
to the jury by the trial judge, who said Swift could be found guilty of
operating the vehicle if he “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.”

The justices in Monday’s ruling noted that “the present case is
analogous to Swift’s.”

“In both cases, the defendant failed to set the vehicle in motion or
even run the vehicle’s motor,” Zarella wrote. “Nothing in our definition
of ‘operation’ requires the vehicle to be in motion or its motor to be
running. … We conclude that [Haight’s] act of inserting the key into
the ignition constituted operation of a motor vehicle within the meaning
of state law.

The court said it didn’t matter whether the key was in the off or the
accessory position.

Haight’s attorney, Brenden Leydon, said he relied on a 1960 Supreme
Court decision in which the court found there was insufficient evidence
that a driver slumped over the steering wheel of his car, with the key in
the ignition, was operating under the influence. But the court said in
Monday’s ruling that the presence of the key in the ignition was
irrelevant in the 1960 decision. In that case, the two sides had agreed
that the driver was operating the vehicle; the dispute was over whether
there was sufficient evidence of intoxication.

Leydon said the ruling in Haight’s case reflects “the general policy
of getting tough on drunk driving, which is understandable.”

“Our position all along was it was better for people to sleep it off,
rather than get out of town quickly,” Leydon said. “That was our policy
reliance.”

Leydon said Haight had entered his car after having dinner and drinks
at a local restaurant. “There was no evidence he ever moved the car at
all.”

Source: http://www.courant.com

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