On a winter night last year, a Harford County deputy sheriff found Boyce Atkinson asleep -- and apparently drunk -- inside his Jeep on the side of U.S. 40 in Edgewood. Mr. Atkinson was charged with driving under the influence and taken into custody. Last week, the Maryland Court of Appeals tossed out the conviction in that case. It ruled that, in Maryland at least, there is no law against being "parked while intoxicated."
The initial reaction from law enforcement circles suggested a victory for the drunken driver.
The ruling is nothing of the sort, however. In its verdict, which was interestingly by a 7-0 vote, the court opined: "We do not believe the legislature meant to forbid those intoxicated individuals who emerge from a tavern at closing time on a cold winter night from merely entering their vehicles to seek shelter while they sleep off the effects of alcohol," Judge Howard S. Chasanow wrote.
What helped convince the judges to discard the conviction was that Mr. Atkinson was parked not far from several drinking establishments. The judges felt it could be argued that Mr. Atkinson hadn't driven his vehicle at all and had merely walked to it and fallen asleep in it. Better that a drunk uses his car for shelter than for transportation, the judges seemed to be saying. Amen to that.
If someone makes the bad judgment of getting in a car and attempting to drive while drunk, he or she should be punished. But shouldn't he or she receive some leniency for having the good judgment to pull off the road before causing damage?
Actually, the court's ruling was pretty narrow: If you're driving drunk, see a police officer, pull over to the roadside and go to sleep, expect to be arrested. The court said that six conditions -- whether the engine is warm, the headlights are on, the keys are in the ignition, the position of the driver and vehicle, and whether the vehicle is legally parked -- will help determine if the driver is "in control of the vehicle."
The morning after the ruling, even before Mr. Atkinson had been informed of it, State Police were already toning down their initial, official disgruntlement. The ruling shouldn't affect DWI patrols too much: Out of every 1,000 drunken driving arrests, maybe three fall in this gray area, police said.
Plus, they acknowledge -- and we agree -- that law enforcement's goal shouldn't be to bar motorists from sleeping off their stupors safely on the shoulder of the road, but to discourage and prosecute drunken drivers.