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Courts seeing more DUI from drugs cases

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Driving under the influence does not only relate to alcohol but to drugs as well. Every week I talk to someone that has been arrested for DUI by prescription drugs who wants to use as their defense the fact that they were taking the dosage of medication prescribed by their physician.

Well, simply put, you can get charged and even convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) without having a drop of alcohol in your system. And even worse, you may not even realize that the prescription medication is causing the same type of side effects that police commonly confuse with being under the influence of alcohol. And if you take your medication and have a glass of wine with dinner, you may be in for a rude awakening.

Almost everyone reading this has taken prescription medication. All medication directs the manner it should be taken, however often times people do not realize the true side effects of the medication. Also, some medications cause different side effects when mixed with other medications. Things like glassy eyes, slurred speech, unsteadiness on feet, and other side effects are common buzz words for police when they think someone is under the influence. People taking pain killers like Lortab driving around "under the influence" completely unaware of risks. Although these are narcotics and most doctors advise you to stay off the road when taking them, other medications for things like blood pressure and anxiety are not so obvious. And when confronted by a police officer whose job is to seek out people driving under the influence, one can quickly find themselves in the cross hairs following a pen and walking a line.

If a person is arrested for DUI while taking only legally prescribed medications, the legality of the prescription is not relevant to the DUI charge. How or why the defendant became impaired is not an element of the crime of DUI; the focus is on the fact that one is simply driving or in physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant or combination of intoxicants. The reason for impairment is irrelevant. The elements of the crime and the penalties for driving under the influence of legally prescribed drugs are the exact same as those for driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal intoxicants. Additionally, unlike alcohol or other illegal drugs, there is no minimum or maximum threshold of prescription drug use one must consume in order to be convicted of a DUI.

This means that you can be convicted of a DUI for having even the slightest amount of prescription drugs in your system. A legal prescription is certainly relevant to prevent separate charges for the possession of drugs, but it is not a defense to the act of driving while impaired.

Common types of prescription drugs that can lead to a driving under the influence charge per the statute includes:

Pain medications containing codeine or oxycodone opioids such as Oxycontin or Percocet as well as hydrocodone which is generic for Vicodin, Lorcet or Lortab
Antidepressants such as Valium (diazepam) Xanax (alprazolam) or Desyrel (trazodone)

Sleep medications such as Ambien or Lunestra

I have represented several people charged with DUI who did not take a sip of alcohol. Don't let it happen to you.

Know the side effects of your medication. If it says to stay away from operating a vehicle or causes drowsiness, stay off the road, especially at night.

Do not mix medications. It may be difficult to determine what the side effects are when mixing medications. If you do not know what will happen, experiment at home, not on the road.

Do not mix any alcohol with your medication. Even one beer mixed with medication can cause some undesired results.

If confronted by the police officer, do not make any admissions about any medication you are taking.

Avoid taking any field sobriety tests if asked to do so by the police officer. Although you may feel up to the task, you will do something wrong, I promise.

Demand a blood test if the only thing in your system is your medication. Breath tests can be unreliable and could result in an inaccurate reading that would only complicate things. And if you refuse to take a test, you could face losing your license for 1 year.

Remember, know you rights and avoid a DUI.
Ken McKnight is assistant public defender for Cannon County.
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