Sleep Driving and the Ambien Defense

Filed under: DUI by Contributor @ February 10, 2015

The dangers of driving while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs are no secret and everyone is aware that this conduct is illegal. Many people may not be aware, however, that you can also be charged with DUI for driving under the influence of prescription drugs. 74 Pa.C.S. § 3802(d)(2) addresses this:

(d) Controlled substances.–An individual may not drive, operate or be in actual physical control of the movement of a vehicle under any of the following circumstances: … (2) The individual is under the influence of a drug or combination of drugs to a degree which impairs the individual’s ability to safely drive, operate or be in actual physical control of the movement of the vehicle.”

Narcotic painkillers, sleeping medication and other drugs are largely responsible for cases of driving under the influence of prescription drugs, with Ambien (a common sleeping medication, generic form called zolpidem) receiving the most media attention recently. When a person is charged with DUI while on Ambien, knowledgeable criminal defense attorneys will investigate the “Ambien defense.” As demonstrated in this video, Ambien can impair driving ability to a degree equal to or greater than a moderate amount of alcohol.

The Ambien defense argues that the individual, while perhaps consciously aware of the fact that he or she started to drive the vehicle, is not guilty of DUI as he or she was not aware of the dangers of driving while on Ambien. Another possibility is that the defendant didn’t even know he or she began to drive the vehicle, as Ambien can put an individual in a state similar to sleepwalking, with the individual having no control over or recollection of events that occurred while sleeping. In either case, it may be possible to argue for a lesser sentence or to have the case dismissed on an involuntary intoxication basis.

The biggest problem with the Ambien defense is right on the label of the prescription:

“GO TO BED AT LEAST 7 TO 8 HOURS. DO NOT DRIVE UNTIL FULLY AWAKE.”

With the precautions and dangers of Ambien plainly explained on the bottle, prosecutors argue that a defendant is responsible for whatever happens after the pill is ingested. In Pennsylvania, the Ambien defense and “sleep driving” are gray areas of the law, and it is almost impossible to predict how these cases will turn out. Of course, we advise anyone who is prescribed Ambien or any other medications that may cause drowsiness to wait until the drug has worn off before driving.

What are your thoughts on the Ambien defense? Comment and let us know.

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