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Prescription Drugs and DUI Arrests


It seems that more and more people are being arrested for DUI based on prescription medication as opposed to alcohol. Common drugs leading to a DUI charge include anti-anxiety medication such as Xanax and sleeping medication such as Ambien. It is not a defense to DUI that these drugs are prescribed by a doctor or that the doctor did not advise the patient that driving after taking the drug was not a good idea.

The only issue is whether the medication legally impaired the defendants ability to drive safely. Prescription drugs can significantly impair a persons ability to drive safely, leading to traffic collisions and more serious charges if somebody is injured. Often, the defendant is unaware that he or she is committing a DUI by driving with impairing medication in their system.

One point to note is that driving under the influence of drugs does not lead to a separate administrative suspension from the DMV, but may trigger a DMV inquiry as to a persons fitness to drive at a separate “Fitness Hearing” requiring medical opinion as to a persons ability to drive safely. The public is aware of the legal limit of .08% with alcohol related DUI cases. There is no such “legal limit” for drugs cases. Sometimes it is obvious that a person was impaired.

I have a case at present where the defendant, having taken anti-anxiety medication, crashed his car into a tree and then went to sleep in the back seat. When the police arrived, he did not know where he was or that he had been involved in an accident. He described himself as being “wasted”. However, in other cases, perhaps where the suspect's tolerance for medication is high, it is not at all obvious that the person was impaired to drive, even with a positive blood or urine test.

There is no bright line in these cases and it is often a matter of opinion. It is these cases that should be defended at jury trial if necessary. Talking to an Orange County deputy DA this week, he said that half of DUI cases going through Orange County Courts at present involved prescription drugs. I find this figure difficult to believe, but it does illustrate the problem.

If you have questions about driving under the influence of drugs, please call DUI defense attorneys Gold & Witham at 800.716.6791 and we would be happy to answer your questions.