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Can You Get a DUI for Driving on Legal Drugs?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | May 11, 2024

Most people who are arrested for driving under the influence in California are impaired by alcohol. However, you could also be arrested and convicted of a DUI based on being under the influence of drugs, including legally prescription medication

Prescription medication DUIs are based on impairment rather than the concentration of a prescription drug in your system. 

Can You Get a DUI for Driving on Legal Drugs?
You can be charged with DUI in California for driving only on legally prescribed drugs.

California Vehicle Code 23152(f) VC says you are considered to be driving under the influence of drugs if your mental or physical capacities are impaired so much that you cannot drive with the care that sober people of ordinary prudence would exercise under similar circumstances. 

Simply put, when prescription drugs substantially influence your ability to operate a vehicle safely, it is possible that you can be arrested and face charges for a prescription drug DUI, known as “DUID.”

Driving while under the influence of any drug is deemed a punishable offense. This includes drugs that a medical professional legally prescribes. 

This means you can be charged with driving under the influence (DUI) with only legally prescribed drugs in your system. Many people are confused as to how they can be charged with DUID when they are not drinking any alcohol or taking illegal drugs.

Instead, you only took medications that your doctor lawfully prescribed. Now, you are left wondering how the state can charge you with DUI. Let's review the law below.

What Does the Law Say?

The state of California takes a zero-tolerance approach toward driving under the influence, which includes alcohol, illegal drugs, and even prescribed medication. 

Under California Vehicle Code 23152(f), it's illegal to operate a vehicle if your physical and mental abilities are impaired by any drug, including lawfully prescribed medication.

VC 23152(f) says that “it is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.” Notably, the term “drug” in the context of this law is broad and includes any of the following:

  • Illegal drugs,
  • Methamphetamine,
  • Cocaine,
  • Controlled substances,
  • Legal marijuana,
  • Legal drugs with a prescription and  
  • Legal drugs sold over the counter.

The critical factor is whether they affect the nervous system, brain, or muscles and cause impairment. Thus, 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. 

California Vehicle Code 23152(f) - DUI Drugs

This means if you are convicted of DUID, 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.

This law is not primarily focused on the substance's legality but on its capacity to impair the driver's ability to operate a vehicle safely. 

Suppose you demonstrate any noticeable signs of impairment. In that case, even if you pass a breathalyzer test (which only measures alcohol content), the police can arrest you for driving under the influence of drugs.

Police 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 officers have received additional training to recognize drug impairment in suspect drivers.

What Types of Prescription Medications Cause Impairment?

A broad range of drugs, both legal and illegal, can substantially affect your cognitive and motor functions and jeopardize your ability to drive safely, including the following: 

  • Benzodiazepines: These prescribed drugs are used to treat anxiety and insomnia, including alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan). They can cause dizziness and lack of coordination.
  • Opioids: This includes prescribed codeine, vicodin, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone, which are prescribed for pain relief but can cause drowsiness, mental confusion, and slowed reaction time.
  • Muscle Relaxants: These prescribed medications, such as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) and carisoprodol (Soma), relieve muscle spasms and tightness but are known to cause drowsiness and slowed reaction times.
  • Stimulants: These drugs are used to treat conditions like ADHD and include amphetamines (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin). They can lead to agitation and make it difficult to focus.
  • Antidepressants: These drugs, especially the older tricyclic antidepressants, can cause impairment like alcohol and impact your driving ability.
  • Antihistamines: These drugs are used to treat allergies and cold symptoms, but they can cause drowsiness that affects driving abilities.
  • Sleep Aids: Prescription sleep aids such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta) can cause drowsiness and confusion, mainly because you have not slept enough after taking the medication.
  • Over the Counter. These include cough syrup, nighttime cold, or flu medicine, which can cause drowsiness or lightheadedness.

Suppose you are pulled over and suspected of driving under the influence of drugs. In that case, you will be subjected to a series of tests, such as field sobriety tests that assess physical and cognitive impairment. 

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

What Are DUID Penalties?

In California, the penalties for DUID vary depending on the circumstances of the case. First-time DUIs will not likely receive jail time, but the penalties can include:

•    Probation, 
•    A fine, 
•    License suspension, and 
•    Mandatory DUI school.

Subsequent offenses can result in mandatory jail time, which increases in length with each offense. After the third offense, or if someone was injured or killed by your actions, you may face felony charges with up to four years in prison.

What Are DUID Defenses?

There are numerous defenses that your attorney might utilize, especially if you were only under the influence of lawfully prescribed drugs, such as the following: 

  • Challenging Chemical Test Results. These tests can be flawed due to improper administration, faulty equipment, or contamination of samples. These tests only determine the presence and quantity of the drug, not any level of impairment. Some drugs can remain in your system for seven days or more, long after any impairment has worn off. Perhaps we can argue that you had not recently taken the medication and were not impaired.
  • Challenging Field Sobriety Tests. FSTs are subjective and rely on the officer's interpretation, but some factors can affect performance, such as nervousness and physical disabilities. Perhaps we can challenge the validity.
  • Medical Defense. Some medical conditions can appear to be signs of drug impairment or affect test results, such as diabetes, neurological disorders, or fatigue, which can cause symptoms like drug impairment. 

As noted, 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 as long as it impairs the driver. 

This means doctor-prescribed medication such as painkillers, amphetamines, sleep aids, and marijuana can be used by prosecutors. If you need more information about driving under the influence of legally prescribed medications, contact Eisner Gorin LLP, located 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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