Can I Get a DUI if My Keys Aren’t in the Ignition in California?

Can I Get a DUI if My Keys Aren't in the Ignition in California?

Picture this scenario: You and your friends are at a bar having a night on the town. As the evening nears to a close, you realize you’re too drunk to drive home, so you decide to play it safe and sleep in your vehicle until you’re sober enough to drive in the morning. You even give your friend the keys to your car to ensure there’s no risk that you’ll drive home while inebriated. Suddenly, you wake up to the abrupt sound of a flashlight tapping against your car window. It’s a police officer who’s come to investigate whether you were driving under the influence. Now what?

From a safety standpoint, there’s no question that it’s safer to sleep in your vehicle than drive home after a night of drinking. But from a legal standpoint, you may wonder if you’re immune to a DUI arrest in this scenario, especially if you don’t have the keys in the ignition. Surprisingly, there are many circumstances in which you can still be at risk for a DUI arrest in California, even if a police officer doesn’t witness you driving. Not having your keys in the ignition isn’t enough on its own to prevent you from getting arrested for drunk driving.

Understanding Circumstantial Evidence in DUI Cases

California Vehicle Code Section 23152(a) states that it’s “unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage to drive a vehicle.” However, what constitutes driving? In California, the prosecution must prove that you acted to cause an intentional movement of a vehicle while under the influence. However, to prove it, an officer doesn’t necessarily have to witness you driving. Instead, law enforcement can put the pieces together using circumstantial evidence.

Circumstantial evidence consists of facts that don’t actually prove the crime but can be used to infer that a crime occurred. When enough circumstantial evidence is present, you can be convicted. The facts, while innocent on their face, may imply some other relevant detail. For example, circumstantial evidence could include open alcohol containers in the car, the types of bruises on the defendant, the warmth of the vehicle’s hood, or any damages to the car.

In this case, while you may not have had the keys in the ignition, the officer will look to use other elements to prove you were driving. For instance, if you had your seatbelt fastened and the engine is still warm, this may be enough to show that your vehicle was operated recently. However, if the keys aren’t in your possession but are instead with your friend several miles away, circumstantial evidence likely won’t be enough to prove that you somehow drove your vehicle without the keys.

DUI Defense Strategies If Your Keys Weren’t in the Ignition

While not having your keys in the ignition is a facet of a successful DUI defense strategy, we’ve learned that it’s not enough if the prosecution can find other shreds of circumstantial evidence. Fortunately, your lawyer may be able to help your case by showing the following: 

  • The keys were stored far out of reach (i.e., in the trunk or with your friend)
  • You weren’t occupying the driver’s seat
  • The engine wasn’t warm at the time of your arrest
  • There was someone else in the vehicle who could have driven 

In other words, while the prosecution can put together circumstantial evidence against you, you and your lawyer can also collect facts that help disprove or infer that you weren’t driving. The more evidence you or your DUI lawyer can bring to the court that you were not a danger while sleeping in your car, the less likely you are to face a conviction.

Call the DUI Defense Attorneys at The Aron Law Firm Today

If you’ve been arrested for driving under the influence—even if you didn’t have your keys in the ignition—the experienced lawyers at the Aron Law Firm may be able to help you evade or reduce the penalties associated with a conviction by negotiating on your behalf and providing counter-evidence to prove the weakness of the prosecution’s argument. Our highly trusted attorneys know the ins and outs of California DUI defense law and will be with you every step of the way throughout the legal process.

At The Aron Law Firm, we understand and have experience defending countless clients against these types of charges and can help you get the best results possible for your situation. We understand the many ways a DUI can disrupt your life, so our goal is to make this process as easy as possible. Give us a call at (805) 500-7745 or complete our contact form for legal assistance today.

William M. Aron


William M. Aron

June 25, 2022

Former Deputy District Attorney William Aron received his Juris Doctorate from the Duke School of Law and has amassed 20 years of experience practicing law. Attorney Aron dedicates his practice to defending the accused, and is devoted to keeping his clients out of prison.