Can a Passenger Be Charged with DUI in Florida?

Getting in the car with a drunk driver is a poor choice, and can put you at great physical risk. But, can taking that ride also put you in legal jeopardy? The answer to that question is a bit more complicated than you might think.

DUI for Passengers

In Florida, a person may be convicted of driving under the influence only if that person is “driving or in actual physical control of a vehicle” while impaired or with a blood alcohol level of .08 or greater.  At first glance, this would suggest that a passenger cannot be charged with DUI in Florida, and that’s almost always true.

The one exception would be when the passenger was exercising control over the vehicle. For example, if the driver decided they were too intoxicated to drive and said, “You take the wheel!” and the passenger did so, then the passenger would be taking control of the vehicle and could potentially be charged with DUI.

However, this is an unusual circumstance and is also one that might be difficult for a prosecuting attorney to prove. Being charged in a case like this does not guarantee a conviction, and it would be in your best interest to consult an experienced Jacksonville DUI attorney right away to discuss the best strategy for fighting the charges.

Similarly, someone sitting in the passenger seat might be charged with DUI if the officer has reason to believe that the driver and passenger quickly switched places when the vehicle was pulled over, or if both exited the vehicle before the officer approached and it is unclear who was driving. In this situation, it can be difficult for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that one person or the other was driving. The best DUI lawyer in this situation is one who has extensive criminal trial experience and is ready and willing to fight the charges in court if that turns out to be the best approach for you.

Passengers in DUI with Injuries Cases

In a DUI with injuries case, law enforcement may be more inclined to pursue any charges they believe may be supportable. However, that doesn’t change the law or what the prosecution will have to prove to secure a conviction. A passenger who was not in control of the vehicle has not committed the crime of driving under the influence.

Of course, the passenger may still be charged with other crimes if evidence emerges during the traffic stop or investigation of the DUI case. Some examples are listed below.

What about a Driver in the Passenger Seat?

In some states, a person must be actively exercising control over the vehicle or demonstrating an intent to operate in order to be charged with DUI. That’s not true in Florida. Florida courts have interpreted “actual physical control of the vehicle” much more loosely. For example, someone sleeping in the driver’s seat of a car with the keys in the ignition, in the driver’s hand, or otherwise close at hand can often be convicted of DUI.

But what if a person under the influence of alcohol is sleeping in their vehicle, but is in the passenger seat or the back seat instead of the driver’s seat? There’s no hard-and-fast rule that says a person sleeping in the passenger seat of an otherwise empty vehicle can be–or cannot be–convicted of DUI. However, it’s important to understand that the prosecution would have to prove “actual physical control.” The further removed the accused is from being in a position to start up the car and drive, the weaker the state’s case will likely be.

Can the Passenger of a Drunk Driver Face Other Charges?

While a passenger generally can’t be charged with DUI because they are not in physical control of the vehicle, they are still responsible for their own actions. So, depending on the circumstances, there are a variety of other criminal charges the passenger of a drunk driver might face. Some examples include:

    • Violation of Florida’s open container law, if the passenger is in control of an open container of alcohol or one on which the seal has been broken. The passenger may be charged even if they are holding or otherwise in control of a container belonging to the driver or another passenger.

    • Disorderly conduct or disorderly intoxication, if the passenger is behaving in a way that endangers the public or property.

    • Unlawful possession of alcohol, if the passenger is under the age of 21 and in actual or constructive possession of alcohol–even alcohol in a sealed container.

These are just a few examples of additional charges the passenger of a drunk driver could potentially face, if the right elements are present. The issue of being in control or possession can be a complicated one. Anyone facing this type of charges should consult an experienced Jacksonville criminal attorney as soon as possible to learn more about possible defenses. Though some of these charges are minor, any criminal conviction can have long-term consequences.

Contact a Jacksonville DUI Attorney

If you’ve been charged with DUI in Florida, your best next step is to talk to an experienced local DUI lawyer. Whether you were the driver of the vehicle, a passenger who has been charged under unusual circumstances, or someone who was sleeping in your car when you were arrested, the case is likely more complex than you realize.

Prosecutors and police want you to believe that you can’t beat DUI charges, but that’s not always true. Don’t get rushed into a guilty plea or plea deal without exploring the weaknesses in your case and your possible defenses.

Attorney Matthew Lufrano has devoted his career to fighting for people charged with crimes in Florida. He has represented clients charged with crimes ranging from minor misdemeanors to murder, and has tried dozens of cases before Florida juries. To learn more about how he may be able to help, schedule your free consultation right now. Just call 904-513-3905 or fill out the contact form on this site.