OWI Endangerment is Not Established by Headlight Out at Night
In Indiana, Operating While Intoxicated is a Class C misdemeanor. However, an OWI is elevated to a Class A misdemeanor if the State proves that a person operated a vehicle while intoxicated causing endangerment. Endangerment can be proven by evidence showing that a defendant’s condition or driving behavior could have endangered any person, including other drivers, the public, or the defendant himself.
The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a man’s conviction for Operating While Intoxicated Causing Endangerment, a Class A misdemeanor, after a jury in the Clinton Superior Court found him guilty. The defendant had been pulled over because he was driving after midnight with one headlight out. The arresting officer testified at trial that the defendant admitted to drinking five bottles of beer that night and talking on his cell phone while driving. He then failed two field sobriety tests and refused to take a chemical breath test. However, there was no evidence showing unsafe or erratic driving.
The Indiana Court of Appeals found that the officer’s testimony supported a finding that the defendant was intoxicated. However, the Court reversed the man’s conviction of operating while intoxicated causing endangerment, finding that an equipment malfunction (headlight out) and speaking on a cell phone are not the product of being intoxicated. Thus, there was insufficient evidence that the defendant operated his vehicle in an unsafe manner. Since the State failed to present evidence that the defendant endangered a person, the Court reduced his conviction from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor.