Can You Get a DWI in a Self-Driving Vehicle?

In several instances, police officers in North Carolina found intoxicated drivers asleep behind the wheel of moving, autonomous vehicles. In all these cases, law enforcement charged these motorists with driving under the influence.

Today’s “self-driving” vehicles, like the Tesla, may seem like a free pass for a drunk driver. But, such vehicles are not entirely autonomous. Currently, the self-driving feature still requires the operator to remain alert to take control of the vehicle when necessary, especially in the event of an emergency or malfunction.

Although GS 20-138.1 states that it is illegal to “drive[] a vehicle upon any highway, any street, or any public vehicular area within this State,” courts interpret this provision very broadly. Even if a person isn’t actually driving the vehicle per se, s/he is in physical control of it. So, prosecutors will use circumstantial evidence to establish that the self-driving vehicle was started and driven by the motorist prior to using the self-driving feature. This circumstantial evidence could include:

  • Sitting in the driver’s seat
  • Engine operating
  • Keys in the ignition
  • Warm tires
  • Vehicle on the road, or on the side of the road

Unless the stop occurs at a roadside checkpoint, law enforcement officers must have reasonable suspicion to detain motorists. As for the incidents mentioned above, these drivers were asleep behind the wheel. That is enough evidence for police to make a traffic stop. However, if the operator of a self-driving vehicle is awake and the vehicle is not moving recklessly while the self-driving feature is enabled, police usually lack reasonable suspicion.

If you have been charged with a DWI in North Carolina, schedule a free consultation with our Raleigh criminal defense attorneys at Sandman, Finn & Fitzhugh, Attorneys at Law, today. Fill out the form to the right or call us at (919) 887-8040.