Most everyone in Florida understands that driving while intoxicated is against the law. But what if you are a passenger in a vehicle that’s being driven by someone who is drunk? The answer to this question is not quite as clear.
Under Florida statute, a defendant must be either driving a vehicle or in physical control of one while having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 or more. Usually the person in control of a vehicle is the one sitting in the driver’s seat. However, in some cases a passenger may be in control of a vehicle. For instance, if the passenger grabs the steering wheel from the passenger seat, he or she is then in control of the vehicle for purposes of the DUI statute.
In some cases, a vehicle may not need to be in motion for an individual to be charged with DUI in Florida. In many jurisdictions, courts look to the intent of the defendant in determining whether he or she was driving. However, Florida courts have more broadly defined “driving” for purposes of DUI. Florida appellate courts have upheld convictions of defendants who were asleep in the driver’s seat of a vehicle and the vehicle’s keys were in the ignition or in the defendant’s hand.
What about an individual who is intoxicated and asleep in a passenger seat of a vehicle? The answer is not quite as clear in Florida. However, as a general principle, the further away from being able to drive the vehicle a defendant is, the less likely the prosecution will be able to convince a jury that the defendant was in control of the vehicle.
Additionally, a passenger may be charged with driving under the influence in Florida if there is reason to believe that he or she was attempting a deception. If the driver and a passenger switch places before the arresting officer arrives at the vehicle and the law officer suspects that they may have switched places, the passenger may be charged with DUI instead. Also, if the driver and passenger exit the vehicle before the arresting officer can identify who was driving at the time of the offense, the passenger may end up charged with DUI instead of the driver.
Although a passenger may not ultimately be charged with DUI in Florida, there are several other laws that a passenger may be charged with violating in the event of a DUI stop. For instance, a passenger may be charged with violating Florida’s open container law if they are in possession of an open beer or liquor container. If the passenger is a minor, they may face a minor in possession charge if they are caught with liquor or beer. If the passenger is acting in a way that is dangerous to people or property, prosecutors may charge him or her with disorderly conduct or disorderly intoxication.
Of course, passengers may be charged with a litany of other charges if they are in a vehicle stopped for a DUI arrest, as law officers are obligated to arrest or cite those in the vehicle whom they suspect may have committed some other crime.