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What does 'physical control' of a vehicle mean in Ohio?

In order to be charged with operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI) of drugs or alcohol, the state has to prove that you were in physical control of the vehicle.

What exactly does that mean in Ohio?

The answers may surprise you. While Ohio isn't necessarily the harshest state when it comes to defining "physical control" of a vehicle, it certainly doesn't offer a lot of leniency either. In Ohio, you're considered to be in physical control of the vehicle if:

  1. You're in the driver's seat of a vehicle.
  2. You have the keys or can reach the keys of the vehicle fairly easily.

This means that Ohio essentially offers no sort of break for the defendant who steps out of a bar, realizes that he or she is too tipsy to drive and decides to sleep off the buzz in the front seat of the car with the doors locked and the keys in the glove compartment.

Similarly, if you didn't realize how drunk you really were until you stood up and started to move, you can't call a friend, a cab or Uber to pick you up and wait outside in your car with the heat running because it happens to be cold.

In both those cases, you can be found guilty of an OVI even though you clearly were trying to do the right thing.

This doesn't really leave you with a lot of options. Even just starting up your engine before realizing that a friend is right and sliding over to take the passenger seat so that you can be driven home is enough to land you in handcuffs.

Violating the physical control statute is still preferable to an actual OVI charge -- it was designed with these very scenarios in mind. If it is your first offense, it's considered a misdemeanor, which at least prevents you from having a felony record. However, it could also eventually come back to bite you -- if you're later convicted of a second offense, the physical control conviction could be enough to enhance your penalty the second time around.

Consider your options carefully if you've been offered a plea deal regarding a physical control charge -- an attorney can provide you with advice specific to your situation.

Source:, "4511.194 Having physical control of vehicle while under the influence," accessed Aug. 31, 2017

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