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Driver and passenger accused of drunken driving

Two drivers. One car. Both arrested on suspicion of driving while drunk.

It?s an unusual case, acknowledged the CHP, whose officers arrested the Santa Rosa driver and teen passenger as drunken driving suspects following their rollover crash on Hall Road in July.

?The passenger was charged with DUI because of admitting she took control of the wheel and caused it to crash,? said Officer Jon Sloat, spokesman for the Sonoma County CHP office.

The 17-year-old girl told officers she grabbed the wheel during an argument with the 19-year-old driver and jerked it, causing the car to swerve, Sloat said.

At that point, the 1999 Chevy Malibu skidded off of Hall Road, smashed into an oak tree and flipped, injuring both young people.

It was about 5 a.m. and the two were traveling 70 to 80 mph on the west Santa Rosa road, the CHP said.

The girl was arrested on suspicion of felony drunken driving causing injury. She had a blood alcohol level of more than .08, the legal limit for adults, according to the CHP.

The driver, Ricardo Joel Mendoza Dominguez, 19, faces a lesser, misdemeanor charge of drunken driving. That stems from his being in control of the car and being intoxicated just prior to her grabbing the wheel, said Sloat.

After the crash, Dominguez was able to get out of the crumpled car and run toward Fulton Road, seeking help. He found a passing Santa Rosa police officer.

The girl was able to crawl out of the car but was found injured, lying in a ditch.

Both were taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital with moderate injuries, Sloat said.

The pair have yet to go to court, and prosecutors still are determining how they will proceed with charges, said Spencer Brady, Sonoma County chief deputy district attorney.

?I?d say it?s somewhat unusual, but it?s not impossible,? Brady said of the legal situation involving a passenger facing possible DUI charges.

To be legally considered a driver, a person has to have control of the wheel, Brady said. The state vehicle code defines a driver as ?a person who drives or is in actual physical control of a vehicle.?

Similar cases involving passengers arrested or charged for DUI turn up around the country every couple of years ? a Pennsylvania man who briefly took the wheel of the car so the driver could eat part of a sandwich; a Virginia man who grabbed the wheel from his sister during an argument and steered the vehicle into a guardrail; a Massachusetts driving instructor who had brakes on his side of the car and sometimes manipulated the steering wheel.

There is legal precedent in California for charging an intoxicated passenger, arising from an Orange County case in which an underage passenger had control of the wheel of a car while someone else operated the brakes and accelerator, said San Francisco attorney Paul Burglin, who specializes in DUI defense.

In that case, the girl struck a motorcycle while trying to make a left turn, injuring both men aboard.

But such cases raise a variety of complications, Burglin said, stemming in part from the defendant?s motives at the time of taking the wheel, the reliability of statements made by intoxicated participants and the possibility that one or the other may try to protect the other with false testimony.

Sloat said the CHP was recommending DUI charges in the Hall Road case based largely on the girl?s admissions that she grabbed the wheel specifically so she could jerk the car out of its path.

Had she simply grabbed it briefly in a bit of horseplay ? a more common scenario ? she more likely would have been cited for interfering with the driver, Sloat said.

Instead, he said, ?There was intent on her part to take control of the car and do something.?

The girl was arrested after the crash but the driver?s arrest came several days later.

Officers waited for results from his blood alcohol test and further investigation before determining he, too, was driving with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit, authorities said.

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