In a recent Virginia Supreme Court decision, the justices tackled what seems like a lightweight matter: the definition of the word “operate.” This seems pretty simple on its face but, in fact, is an incredibly weighty matter if you have been charged with a DUI in Virginia.

Sarafin v. Commonwealth

In the case of Sarafin v. Commonwealth, the defendant, Justin Sarafin, was charged for DUI while parked in his driveway. He had gone out that night, had a few drinks at a pub, gotten dinner, and came home. While home, he had a few more drinks and decided to go out to his car to listen to the radio. The police received a noise complaint and arrived to find Sarafin asleep at the wheel of his car with the keys in the ignition turned backwards to “Accessory” with the radio blasting. The responding officer awoke Sarafin, who turned the ignition off and complied with the order to step out of the car. He then proceeded to fail three of the five applied field sobriety tests and then failed a breath alcohol test and was promptly arrested for DUI. He was convicted and appealed on the basis that he was not “operating” a motor vehicle at the time of arrest and that he was on private property, not on a highway. The Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, saying he had control of his vehicle and therefore was appropriately convicted as an operator of the vehicle. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, agreeing with the definition of “operator” and saying the public highway component of the law only applies to mopeds.

Virginia DUI Law

At issue is Virginia’s law which states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to drive or operate any motor vehicle, engine or train . . . while such person is under the influence of alcohol. . . .  For the purposes of this article, the term “motor vehicle” includes mopeds, while operated on the public highways of this Commonwealth.”

“Operator” is defined by the court as one having control of the vehicle who has manipulated the controls for motive power. The plain meaning of this is that if you are behind the wheel and have inserted the key, you are now considered the operator. The law applies anywhere, including your driveway and any other private property

It is readily apparent that if you are sitting in your car anywhere in the Commonwealth and the key is in the ignition, you are potentially liable for DUI. This isn’t really new law but it is certainly a reaffirmation of the sometimes draconian application of the law here in Virginia.

Obviously, with that being said, if you have been charged with DUI in Northern Virginia, you need an experienced DUI lawyer to help preserve your rights. A dedicated DUI lawyer is necessary to navigate the complicated field of law that has evolved in DUI cases. Jad Sarsour is that lawyer. With thousands of satisfied clients, Jad is skilled and experienced in pursuing justice for you. Give him a call at (571) 316-2639 to set up your initial consultation and begin building your defense today.