How Can Legal Prescription Drugs Lead to a DUI?
Consider the fact that the crime of DUI essentially has the following two elements:
- A person drives a vehicle;
- The person is under the influence of a substance that impairs their ability to drive while driving.
It may seem counterintuitive that a drug prescribed by a doctor could cause legal problems. However, considering those elements, it makes sense that any substance that impairs one’s driving ability could lead to a DUI arrest.
Additionally, many of these drugs contain warnings not to operate a motor vehicle when using the medication due to the side effects they may produce.
The following are prescription drugs that should be taken with caution before operating a motor vehicle:
- Allergy medications;
- Anti-seizure medication;
- Medications for bipolar disorder;
- Medications for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD);
- Pain Killers.
Indeed, many states even include a section for stimulants or narcotics—prescription or otherwise—as drugs that can lead to a violation of the state’s DUI statute. Interestingly, California has a law that forbids anyone who has a drug addiction, even an addiction to legal drugs, from operating a motor vehicle while addicted. This can include people who use methadone or heroin to curtail an addiction.
If a person is taking a prescription drug, or gets a prescription for a new medicine or a higher dose of a current medication, they should not drive until they know what effect the drug is going to have on their judgment, coordination, and reaction time. In addition, certain medications may not impair a person if taken on their own, but if they are taken with a second medication or with alcohol, they may impair a person’s driving ability.
It is important to know that warnings on a prescription medication against “operating heavy machinery” include driving a vehicle.
And it is not only medications that may cause effects that mimic those of alcohol or illicit drugs. Side effects such as nausea, blurred vision, dizziness, slowed movement, fainting, inability to focus or pay attention, and excitability are all side effects that could disable a person while they are operating a car and can impair a person’s driving ability. Cold and allergy medicines, sleep aids, and other over-the-counter (OTC) medications can cause side effects of the type that can put everyone on the road at risk.
Can Sedative-Hypnotic Sleeping Medications Result in a DUI Arrest?
The federal Food and Drug Administration warns us that any medication classified as a sedative-hypnotic is known to cause sleepwalking. In addition, instances of people sleep driving have been known to occur.
The person can be charged with driving under the influence of sleeping pills when a driver operates a motor vehicle after taking any of the following sedative-hypnotic sleeping medications:
- Butisol sodium;
- Seconal; or
A person may be charged with DUI if they operate a vehicle after taking any type of sleeping drug in such a way as to show that their ability to drive is impaired.
Another problematic medication is Gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid (GHB). This drug is a neurotransmitter and leads to euphoria, lowered inhibitions, and relaxation. It is used legally as a prescription drug, but is also often used illegally as a “party drug”. Another problem arises from the fact that is it used illegally as a way to perpetrate sexual assault.
Inappropriate ingestion of GHB can result in hazardous and impaired driving. It is important to measure how much of the medication a person is consuming. If a person takes too much too quickly, a person can pass out, become less alert, or lose their focus.
People who were not aware that the drug has been slipped into their drink in a public place might feel that they are capable of driving, but the effects of the drug may develop suddenly and become a problem only after the person’s travel is underway. Another cause for concern is that GHB is potentially fatal to the user, if it is taken with other drugs or alcohol.
What If GHB Was Not Taken Intentionally?
Individuals who have been targeted for sexual assault are victims and arguably should not be charged with a criminal offense for having a drug in their system that they did not consume intentionally. Unfortunately it is legal for a person to be arrested for DUI if they operate a motor vehicle at a time when they were impaired, even if they did not cause their impairment themselves.
In such cases, it would be necessary to determine if the person ingested other substances before driving or if the driver felt the impairment before choosing to drive. There may or may not be witnesses who saw someone surreptitiously slipping a drug into the person’s drink. If a person is stopped, arrested and charged, defending against the charge is possible, but could be challenging.
How Can Impairment by Prescription Drugs Be Measured?
This is one of the biggest issues posed by DUIs from prescription drugs, legal drugs, and even illegal drugs. As of now, there are no generally accepted standards for determining how much of a drug, legal or otherwise, it takes to impair a driver. By contrast, the legal limit for blood alcohol content can be measured reliably and is defined by law as 08%.
Therefore, the primary way in which officers can justify an arrest for DUI from prescription drugs is the observation of behaviors, such as an appearance of drowsiness or slurred speech.
Other factors that an officer might observe and take as indications of impairment may include:
- Admission by the driver that they are on medication;
- Failing field sobriety tests;
- The car is weaving back and forth within a lane or even weaving between lanes;
- Swerving, speeding, or violating traffic laws.
Once arrested, the police may conduct a blood test to confirm their suspicion that a person is under the influence of a substance that has impaired their driving. However, these tests may only indicate the presence of a drug.
What the tests cannot do is measure the concentration of the drug in a person’s blood as can be done for alcohol. And then there may not be any clear guidelines as to the amount that would impair any particular person as there is with alcohol.
So a blood test may be of some help to the prosecution, but not to the same extent as tests for blood alcohol content.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with a Charge of DUI of a Prescription Drug?
While DUIs from perfectly legal prescription drugs are nothing new, law enforcement is paying increased attention to the offense. Conviction for DUI carries very serious criminal sentences, and can impact other areas of your life as well, such as applying for jobs.
This is particularly true in states with medical or decriminalized marijuana. If you are facing prosecution for driving under the influence of a drug you were prescribed, consulting with an experienced DUI/DWI lawyer will be the best way to ensure your rights are protected.