Many times police will encounter a vehicle with someone sleeping in the driver’s seat. This often leads to arrests for DWI related charges. The issue in such a situation is whether the police may approach that vehicle, awaken the driver and thereafter ask the driver to exit the vehicle. As with virtually all issues associated with stops, seizures and searches, there is no set answer. This issue is decided on a case-by-case basis taking several factors and variable into account.
In People v. May, 81 A.D.2d 805 the police encountered a parked vehicle in New York City with the driver slumped over the steering wheel. The keys were in the ignition but the car was not running. One of the officers knocked on the window and awakened the defendant. The defendant’s reactions were slow and his speech was slurred. The officer asked defendant to exit the vehicle and while defendant was doing so, a gun fell to the ground. The trial court held that the police were allowed to approach the vehicle and check on the occupant/defendant but that the police were not justified in asking defendant to exit the vehicle because they had no basis to suspect he was involved in criminal activity or was violating the Vehicle and Traffic Law.
The Appellate Division reversed finding that the officers’ conduct was not the product of mere whim, caprice or idle curiosity, but was instead based on specific and articulable facts such as the fact that defendant was slumped at the wheel with the key in the ignition and, when he was aroused, his speech was slurred and his movements were slow. Considering the original approach of the vehicle was legal, in these circumstances, the police could properly ask defendant to step out of the car and display his license and registration.
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