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5 Things You Should Know About Prescription Drug DUI Laws

When discussing the impact of driving under the influence, we often focus on the impairment caused by alcohol or recreational drugs. However, these laws aren’t restricted to those substances. If prescription medications have an impact on your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, you may also be faced with the consequences of a DUI charge. Familiarize yourself with the facts about prescription drug DUI laws and how they may impact you and your family.

1. Overview of California DUI on Prescription Drugs

To fully understand the laws relating to DUI on prescription drugs in California, we must first acknowledge that these laws don’t differentiate between legitimate prescription drugs that are legally possessed and taken under the direction of a medical professional and those that are taken recreationally. Instead, under California Vehicle Code Section 23152, it is a criminal offense to be in operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of any alcohol or drug that has the end effect of impairing the driver.

2. Effects of Prescription Drugs & How They May Impact Driving

Prescription drugs serve an important medical purpose; however, they can also possess side effects that make operating a motor vehicle dangerous. With thousands of drugs being prescribed regularly in the United States, the side effects can vary significantly, making it important to fully understand the potential effects of any medication that you may be taking.

The prescription drugs that are most commonly used can be sorted into three distinct classes:  

Opioids: Pain relievers made from the opium poppy plant, prescription opioids such as codeine, morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone are often prescribed for the management of medium to severe pain. The work by relaxing the body, however, that effect can also leave with feelings of drowsiness, confusion, or euphoria.

Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants: Often prescribed to help treat sleep disorders like insomnia, anxiety, panic-related illnesses, and acute stress reaction, CNS depressants work by directly impacting brain activity. This class of drugs includes tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics including benzodiazepines (such as Valium and Xanax), non-benzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics (such as Ambien and Lunesta), and barbiturates (such as Luminal and Nembutal).

The most common side effect of these medications is drowsiness. However, along with feeling sleepy, users may also find themselves struggling with poor concentration, confusion, light-headedness, dizziness, and problems with movement and memory.

Stimulants: Prescription stimulants such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), dextroamphetamine/amphetamine combinations (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta) are generally described to increase alertness, energy, and attention levels in those diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. With the opposite effects of CNS depressants, the side effects of stimulants may include panic states, hallucinations, aggression, restlessness, and tremors.

3. Testing Methods

When someone is pulled over for DUI due to alcohol, this can be tested through the use of a Breathalyzer device and a set threshold of 0.08% BAC. The same can’t be said when measuring the presence of drugs in a driver’s system at the time of the arrest. This can make it more challenging for law enforcement to determine whether the driver is impaired.

At the time of trial, the arresting officer will be called upon to testify as to the state of the driver at the time that they were pulled over. This includes the result of any field sobriety tests performed, the reasons why the driver was pulled over, to begin with (driving in an unsafe manner) and physical symptoms of intoxication that the driver may have demonstrated such as slurred speech or an unsteady gait.

The most important evidence, however, comes from the knowledge and experience of a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). The DRE will follow a 12-step evaluation process throughout the DUI investigation. This includes field tests that will help to determine whether the driver’s impairment could have been caused by alcohol, whether the driver suffering from a medical condition at the time or solely under the influence of drugs and which category of drugs the driver may have been under the influence of at the time that they were operating their vehicle. 

Finally, the court may look at physical evidence of the presence of drugs as proof. This includes any prescription drugs that are found in the vehicle or on the driver at the time of the arrest.

4. Legal Defenses for Prescription Drugs DUI

If you have been charged with DUI on prescription drugs, you may be able to present a compelling case with the help of an experienced DUI attorney. The burden of proof rests with the prosecution, meaning that they must prove that the drugs you were taking at the time caused your impairment. With no definitive test or threshold to prove intoxication, this can be a challenge. However, the ‘doctor’s orders’ argument alone will not hold up.

The first consideration is whether the driving infraction was indicative of impaired driving. If you were initially pulled over for a minor infraction, such as not using a turn signal, and your case involves no serious aggravating factors such as DUI involving bodily injury, your attorney can use this fact when formulating their defense.

In the event that blood or urine screening was conducted following your arrest, there may be proof that the drug itself was in your system. However, that alone is not solid proof of DUI. The prosecution must prove impairment and your attorney may make their case on the fact that the effects of many of these drugs can wear off while the substance is still present in your system.

Additionally, if you were taking prescription sleep aids at the time of arrest, your attorney may make a case based on the potential impact of those medications. They can refer to proven cases of sleepwalking and even sleep-driving during which someone got into their vehicle and operated it without even realizing that they were doing so. Faced with this fact, the prosecution may be willing to reduce or dismiss the charges that have been brought against you.

5. Penalties

The penalty for a first offense DUI on Prescription Drugs in the state of California includes a fine of $390 to $1000 plus the cost of penalties and assessments, three to five years of probation, a minimum six-month driver’s license suspension and your attendance at a required drug education class for a minimum of three months. You may also be required to install an ignition interlock device in your vehicle. Some counties will also impose jail time in addition to the above penalties.

With these significant penalties at stake, it highlights the importance of contacting an experienced DUI attorney that is familiar with the best way to proceed with your case.

If you’ve been arrested for a prescription drug DUI, it’s important to get a defense attorney as soon as possible. Reach out to the Artz & Sturm Law Group to learn how we can help your case.

Craig Sturm is one of the few attorneys who is actually a certified instructor of the NHTSA field sobriety tests used to arrest you. Mr. Sturm is also one of the very few attorneys who has taken and completes the NHTSA A.R.I.D.E. Class, which is an actual drug dui course that the officers who are trained in this area took as well. Also, Mr. Sturm has been thoroughly DRE trained, he will be able to go over the 12-step checklist in detail to expose officers for not doing the investigation correctly.

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