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Can You Get a DUI for Taking Prescribed Drugs?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Dec 18, 2023

Let's discuss whether you can get charged with driving under the influence (DUI) in California with only legally prescribed drugs in your system. If you have recently been arrested and charged in California with DUI for suspected drug impairment, known as DUID, you might be confused as to how these charges came about. 

You were not drinking; you were not taking illegal drugs. All you did was take medications that your doctor lawfully prescribed. So, can the state charge you with DUI?

Yes. The state of California takes a zero-tolerance approach toward driving under the influence, whether that involves alcohol, illegal substances, or even prescribed medication. 

Can You Get a DUI for Taking Prescribed Drugs?
In California, you can be charged with DUI with only legally prescribed drugs in your system.

Under California Vehicle Code 23152(f), it is illegal to operate a vehicle if your physical and mental abilities are impaired by any drug, irrespective of its legal status.  VC 23152(f) says that “it is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.

Notably, what counts as a “drug” is broad, including illegal drugs or controlled substances, legal drugs with a prescription, and legal drugs sold over the counter if they affect the nervous system, brain, or muscles and cause impairment.

This essentially means that having nearly any drug in your body could count as driving under the influence if it impairs your ability to operate a motor vehicle safely. Some drugs are considered more harshly than others, such as marijuana, and illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine.

Unless you and your attorney can present a solid defense to refute the charges, if you're convicted, at the very least, you could face fines, probation, suspension of your license, and mandatory DUI school. You could even face jail time if this is not your first offense.

What is the Law Regarding Prescription Drugs and Driving?

As noted, under California Vehicle Code 23152(f), driving while under the influence of any drug is deemed a punishable offense. This includes drugs that a medical professional legally prescribes. 

Prescription Drugs and Driving a Motor Vehicle
The law is not focused on if a drug is legal, but rather if it impairs the ability to drive a car safely.

This law focuses not on the legality of the substance consumed but on its capacity to impair the driver's ability to operate a vehicle safely. For this reason, law enforcement can arrest you and charge you with DUID if you demonstrate any noticeable signs of impairment, even if you pass a breathalyzer test, which only measures alcohol content.

Simply put, VC 23152(f) makes it a crime to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It does not differentiate between legally prescribed medicines and illegal street drugs if they impair the driver. Thus, doctor-prescribed medication such as painkillers, amphetamines, sleep aids, and marijuana can be used by prosecutors.

Since police officers do not have a mobile device that can measure the presence of drugs in a driver's system, they often rely on Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) officers to conduct field tests to determine whether a driver is under the influence of drugs. These police officers have received additional training to recognize drug impairment in suspect drivers.

What Types of Prescription Drugs Can Cause Impairment?

A broad spectrum of drugs, both legal and illegal, can significantly affect an individual's cognitive and motor functions and jeopardize their ability to drive safely. These include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Opioids: These include medications like codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone. They are often prescribed for pain relief but can cause drowsiness, mental confusion, and slowed reaction time, which can impair driving.
  • Benzodiazepines: Commonly used to treat anxiety and insomnia, drugs in this category include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan). They can cause dizziness, lack of coordination, and impaired judgment.
  • Antidepressants: Certain types of these drugs, particularly older tricyclic antidepressants, can cause impairment like alcohol.
  • Antihistamines: These are commonly used to treat allergies and cold symptoms. Drowsiness is a common side effect of many antihistamines, which can affect driving abilities.
  • Sleep Aids: Prescription sleep aids like zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta) can cause significant drowsiness and even confusion, mainly if the person has not slept enough after taking the medication.
  • Stimulants: Drugs used to treat conditions like ADHD, such as amphetamines (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin), can lead to recklessness, agitation, and difficulty focusing.
  • Muscle Relaxants: Medications such as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) and carisoprodol (Soma) relieve muscle spasms and tightness but can cause drowsiness and slowed reaction times.

Simply put, the commonly prescribed drugs of Vicodin or Xanax could be considered as a source of impairment. There are also other common medicines seen in DUI cases, such as cough syrup, nighttime cold or flu medicine, anxiety medication, prescription painkillers, muscle relaxants, and anything that causes drowsiness or a lightheaded sensation.

What is the Testing Process?

If a law enforcement officer in California pulls you over, suspecting you're driving under the influence of drugs, they will likely subject you to a series of tests. These include field sobriety tests that assess physical and cognitive impairment. 

If arrested, you may also be subjected to chemical tests such as a blood draw. These tests are designed to identify the type of drug consumed, the dosage level, and its potential impact on your driving abilities.

What Are the Penalties?

The penalties for DUID vary widely depending on the circumstances of the case. While California law permits jail sentencing for first-time DUIs, in most cases, first-time offenders won't receive jail time.

Instead, you'll likely receive probation, a fine, license suspension, and mandatory DUI school. Subsequent offenses result in mandatory jail time, which increases in length with each offense. After the third offense, or if anyone was hurt or killed by your actions, you may face felony DUI charges with up to four years in prison.

What Are the Common Defenses?

Being charged with DUI does not necessarily lead to a conviction. There are several defenses that your attorney may implement, especially if you were only under the influence of lawfully prescribed drugs. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Challenging Field Sobriety Tests. Field sobriety tests are subjective and rely heavily on the officer's interpretation. Factors like nervousness, physical disabilities, or even wearing high-heeled shoes can affect performance and results. Therefore, the validity of these tests can be challenged.
  • Challenging Chemical Test Results. Chemical tests can also be flawed due to improper administration, faulty equipment, or contamination of samples. Moreover, these tests determine the presence and quantity of the drug but do not definitively prove impairment. Some drugs may remain in your system for seven days or more, long after any impairment has worn off. Your attorney may argue that you had not recently taken the medication and, therefore, could not have been impaired.
  • Medical Defense: Certain medical conditions can mimic signs of drug impairment or affect test results. Conditions like diabetes, neurological disorders, or fatigue can cause symptoms like drug impairment. This can be used as a defense.

If you need more information about driving under the influence of legally prescribed drugs in California, contact our law firm to review the case details and discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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