Woman Gets DWI While on Autopilot in Tesla

Recently, a California woman got arrested for a DWI while driving her Tesla on autopilot. Allegedly, the woman passed out at the wheel while her husband was following her in another vehicle. Tesla’s self-driving mode allegedly took over command of the woman’s car. While the vehicle drove on the road, other cars in front of it caused it to slow down. Eventually, cop cars got in front of it and caused it to stop.

In Minnesota, you can get a DWI for driving, operating, or being in physical control of a motor vehicle. If a person argues they were not driving a car while it was on autopilot, and they are successful in that argument, then they will likely run afoul of the definitions of operating and physical control. If someone causes a vehicle to be placed into self-driving mode, then they are likely operating that vehicle. Even worse, Minnesota’s physical control laws are often liberally enforced by the courts.

Physical control in Minnesota covers situations where a person, without too much difficulty, can make the vehicle a source of danger. This often covers situations where a person is found unconscious in the driver’s seat. The concern is that the inebriated person could start the automobile and drive away.

A Minnesota Court of Appeals case from 1985 covered physical control and mechanical inoperability. Roberts v. Commissioner of Public Safety found that the driver was not in physical control after a group of friends placed the person in the driver’s seat of his vehicle after passing out. The group of friends went under the hood of the vehicle and pulled the engine coil wire apart, so that the person could not operate the car. The court used mechanical inoperability as one of the factors to decide that physical control was not present.

In 1987, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that a driver was in physical control of a vehicle when he was waiting for his wife to arrive to help him jump-start his dead car battery. Even though there was mechanical inoperability in this case (Abeln v. Commissioner of Public Safety), the court reasoned that the vehicle was only temporarily inoperable and could be quickly remedied.

Challenging Autopilot DWI cases in Minnesota are likely going to difficult. Even if the court decides the person is not driving or operating the vehicle while passed out behind the wheel of a self-driving car, physical control is going to be hard to overcome. Courts may likely determine that the driver could suddenly wake up and start driving the car. The point of physical control is to prevent people from making a vehicle a source of danger without too much difficulty. Add in the factors of being in the driver’s seat while the vehicle is moving down the road, finding physical control or even operability is going to be tough to overcome.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer and DWI lawyer in Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past six years; and the National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past seven years. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. DWI Attorney Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Lawyer Woodbury; and DWI Lawyer Minnesota.

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