Is asleep behind the wheel operating?

The legal definition of "operating" in operating while intoxicated cases is being in "immediate actual physical control of a motor vehicle that is in motion or has its engine running." The question that arises from time to time is what about the individual is fast asleep behind the wheel when law enforcement comes into contact with them? Is that individual in "immediate actual physical control?"

The common sense answer to this question is "no." A basic reading of the definition reveals that it requires action or the immediate ability to act as it pertains to controlling or manipulating the vehicle. An individual that is asleep has no immediate or actual ability to do anything other than continue sleeping. The Iowa Supreme Court has agreed with this statement in the unpublished decision of State v. Worrall. In Worrall, the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that "we are unable to conclude that a person is in 'actual phsyical control' of a motor vehicle while engaged in a deep sleep."

The Iowa Supreme Court's decision in Worrall makes sense given the stated purpose behind Iowa's drunk driving laws which is the prevention of the death and destruction of life that often times unfortunately accompanies drunk driving. Why would the legislature want to punish an individual who has made the correct decision of not driving merely because they are sleeping behind the wheel of a vehicle that has its engine running. The alternative of racing law enforcement home hoping that one does not get caught is simply not acceptable. It would be ludicrous to punish a person for doing the right thing. It is one thing for the individual to be passed out behind the wheel of a car that is running in the middle of traffic on a public highway or road it is quite another thing for the individual to have the wherewithall to either remain parked or pull off and park safely keeping the general public's best interest and safety in mind. This is especially so in areas with extreme climates such as Iowa where the engine must be running in order to keep the vehicle warm or cool enough so that sleeeping person does not befall additional peril.

Some states have adpoted and actually legislated something called the "shelter doctrine" which is an affirmative defense wherein if an individual voluntarily pulls off the road upon realizing that they are not in the proper condition to drive, they have an affirmative defense to any drunk driving charge that may be brought. Iowa has not adopted any such law but does not necessarily need to since "immediate actual phsyical control" does not encompass an individual that is fast asleep behind the wheel of a vehicle even if the engine is running.