The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed a man’s conviction for operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing endangerment. The court held that to convict someone of the Class A misdemeanor offense, the State must submit proof of "endangerment" beyond mere intoxication.
Indiana law has two classes of operating while intoxicated (“OWI”) offenses. It is a Class C misdemeanor to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated. It is a Class A misdemeanor to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated, in a manner that endangers a person. A Class C misdemeanor carries a penalty of 0 to 60 days in jail and up to a $500 fine. A Class A misdemeanor carries a penalty of 0 to 365 days in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. Furthermore, a Class A misdemeanor OWI counts as a substance offense under Indiana’s habitual substance offender law. If a person is convicted of three substance offenses (such as OWI, possession of marijuana, etc.), they face an additional 3 to 8 years of incarceration for the third substance offense. A Class C misdemeanor does not count as a substance offense. Thus, a Class C misdemeanor OWI conviction is a not a strike against a defendant’s habitual substance offender status.
In the case above, the defendant was parked in the middle of a drug store parking lot. The car’s engine was running, and its headlights were on. The defendant sat in the driver’s seat slumped over the steering wheel. A police officer testified at trial that he banged on the car’s window for thirty seconds before the defendant acknowledged him. The officer also testified that the defendant answered questions slowly, had red eyes, and had a strong odor of alcohol about him. The defendant failed one of two field sobriety tests and had a .12% blood alcohol content. The police office never observed the defendant traveling in the vehicle. However, circumstantial evidence presented at trial indicated the defendant had been driving.
The defendant was charged with two counts: operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing endangerment, a Class A misdemeanor; and operating a vehicle while intoxicated, a Class C misdemeanor. The defendant was found guilty of both counts at a bench trial. He appealed arguing that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the convictions.
The Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s conviction on the Class A misdemeanor count, finding that the State failed to present sufficient evidence of endangerment. The Court held that the State was required to submit proof of "endangerment" that went beyond mere intoxication in order for the defendant to be convicted of operating while intoxicated as a Class A misdemeanor. This ruling was significant not only because the Defendant now only faced a penalty range of 0 to 60 days, instead of 0 to 365 days. The Class C misdemeanor is not a strike towards the defendant’s habitual substance offender status.
If you are arrested for operating while intoxicated in Indiana, you will almost certainly be charged with two counts of operating while intoxicated: the Class A misdemeanor offense that requires a finding of endangerment, and the lesser offense of merely operating while intoxicated, a Class C misdemeanor. If you are charged with operating while intoxicated, it is important to obtain a criminal attorney with significant trial experience. You may have a defense a charge of Class A misdemeanor operating while intoxicated, if the State cannot prove that your driving caused endangerment. If you are also alleged to be a habitual substance offender, you may be able to avoid the 3 to 8 year sentencing enhancement.