The Dos and Don’ts of “Sleeping it Off”: How to Sober Up in Your Car Without Risking Criminal Exposure

It’s Friday night. You’re ready to go home after a night out, but you’ve been drinking. So rather than drive home, you figure you’ll get some shut eye in the car and drive home in the morning once you’ve sobered up. You get in and close your eyes. 45 minutes later, a police officer knocks on your window, subjects you to standard field sobriety testing, and then places you under arrest. Suddenly, you’re facing a conviction for Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol, potential jail time, a large fine, likely probation, and a suspension of your driver’s license (the maximum penalty for Driving Under the Influence is one year and/or a $1,000 fine for a first-time offender).

So how can you make the safe choice by sleeping in your vehicle while at the same time being sure to avoid arrest and conviction? Maryland has recognized that those who make the smart decision to sleep in their cars rather than drive do not deserve punishment. Therefore, the State has adopted the “statutory shelter doctrine” which permits intoxicated individuals to sleep in their cars without consequence. A police officer’s job is to determine whether an intoxicated individual found in their car was there to sleep or to drive. To prove to the officer that you were only using the vehicle for shelter, follow these instructions:

Park Your Vehicle Legally – Not only will keeping your vehicle in a legal parking space serve to avoid police attention, but it will demonstrate to police that you were not recently driving the vehicle. A police officer may infer from an illegally parked vehicle that the driver recently pulled the vehicle into that area, whereas the officer will find that a legally parked vehicle is more likely to have been there for a long time. The collateral effect, of course, is that you’ll avoid any pesky parking tickets.

Only Turn on the Ignition if Necessary – If it’s thirteen degrees outside, you clearly don’t have a choice. Turn on the car and blast that heat. However, if the temperature outside is mild, keeping the vehicle ignition off will go a long way towards avoiding criminal liability. The great legal minds of our time maintain that it is very difficult to drive a car that is turned off. Police agree. On that note, keep your keys in your pocket or in the center console. The further from the ignition they are, the better.

Sit in the Passenger Side or Back Seat – Again, you want to show the police that you were not, nor had any intention to, drive the vehicle. If you sit somewhere other than the driver’s seat, you can prove such intent. Don’t worry; the passenger seat will be just as comfortable.

Keep Your Headlights Off – If you aren’t going anywhere, you don’t need to see what’s in front of you. Many cars have automatic settings for their headlights, so you may need to manually turn your headlights off if it is dark outside. It is worth the effort.

For further information, you can read Gore v. State, 74 Md. App. 143 (1988), Atkinson v. State, 331 Md. 199 (1993), and Motor Vehicle Admin. V. Atterbeary, 369 Md. 480 (2002).

-Post by Richard A. Finci and Jeremy R. Feldman