Were You Driving While Impaired? It Depends: Where Were You?

Were You Driving While Impaired? It Depends: Where Were You?

When the government charges someone with driving while impaired, people naturally have questions. Were they under the influence? Did they hurt anyone? Perhaps others might ask more skeptical questions as well. Did the police pull them over legally? Did law enforcement legally prove their impairment? 

But how many people ask one of the most important legal questions involved: Where were they? For someone like Ricky Franklin Charles, the answer to that question was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back. Almost.

Police found Charles sleeping in the driver’s seat of his running car on the side of a roadway by two mobile homes and charged him with driving while impaired.

On Apr. 9, 2016, law enforcement found Ricky Franklin Charles “nonresponsive and slumped over in the driver’s seat [of his running car] with his head down and his eyes closed” at the intersection of two Gaston County roads. Blood testing later showed Alprazolam, Oxycodone Free and Oxymorphone Free in Charles’ system. Likewise, Charles admitted that he “regularly” took Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Flexeril, and Xanax. 

Based on this information, the government charged Charles with driving while impaired. To be convicted of that offense under North Carolina law, a district attorney must demonstrate that a defendant drove while impaired “upon any highway, any street, or any public vehicular area within this State[.]” North Carolina law defines the term “public vehicular area” in multiple ways. 

First, N.C. law defines “public vehicular area” as a road “used by the public for vehicular traffic at any time….” The law identifies several examples that meet that definition, including “any drive, driveway, road, roadway, street, alley, or parking lot….” Second, N.C. law defines “public vehicular area” as “a road used by vehicular traffic within or leading to a gated or non-gated subdivision or community….”

A Gaston County jury convicted Charles of driving while impaired based on his actions described above. Charles appealed, arguing that where he parked did not constitute a “public vehicular area” under those definitions.

The Court of Appeals held that the roadway was a “public vehicular area” because it led to a subdivision or community

The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed with respect to the first but disagreed when it came to the second. Emphasizing that the road led to two mobile homes, the Court concluded that it led to a subdivision or community. In support of its decision, the Court highlighted one if its own 1994 decisions in which it held that the definition of “subdivision” “specifically includes ‘[t]he division of a lot … into two or more lots.”

Had Charles made it to his driveway, the government likely wouldn’t have charged him at all. With more than 10,000 people dying in alcohol-related traffic crashes and one million people being arrested for impaired-driving offenses per year, one has to wonder whether the driver’s final destination should have such an impact under North Carolina law.