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Can You Get a DUI for Taking Prescription Medication?

Posted by Sam Israels | Apr 08, 2024

California Vehicle Code 23152(f) VC is the statute making it a crime to drive under the influence of drugs (DUID), which is generally described as an inability to drive like someone sober under similar circumstances because of any type of drug, such as legally prescribed or over-the-counter medication.

Can You Get a DUI for Taking Prescription Medication?
It's illegal to drive under the influence of prescribed medication if it affects your ability to drive safely.

Simply put, you can be charged with DUI in California with only legally prescribed drugs in your system. DUID is typically filed as a misdemeanor and carries the same penalties as driving under the influence of alcohol, but it could be a felony under certain circumstances.

Many people arrested with DUI on suspicion of drug impairment (DUID) are surprised they can be charged because they were not drinking any alcohol but were only taking their lawfully prescribed medication from their doctor.

The state of California takes a zero-tolerance approach for people driving under the influence, whether involving alcohol, illegal controlled substances, drugs, or even medication. 

Vehicle Code 23152(f) VC says, “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.” Vehicle Code 23152(g) says, “It is unlawful for a person who is under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug to drive a vehicle.”

This means it's illegal to operate a vehicle if any drug impairs your physical and mental abilities, whether they are legal or not. The definition of a “drug” is wide-ranging and includes:

  • Illegal drugs,
  • Controlled substances,
  • Legally prescribed drugs and
  • Marijuana driving,
  • Drugs sold over the counter. 

Many types of drugs can affect the nervous system, brain, or muscles and cause some impairment in your ability to drive a motor vehicle safely. This includes prescription medications, even if they don't make you “high,” and over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines and cold medicines.

What Does the Law Say About Prescribed Drugs and Driving a Vehicle?

Suppose you have any drug in your system while driving a car in California. In that case, driving under the influence can be considered if it impairs your ability to operate a motor vehicle safely. 

DUI of prescribed drugs charges are often based on a motorist being under the influence of the following:

  • Opiates, such as Vicodin or Oxycontin,
  • Sleeping pills, such as Ambien and Lunesta,
  • Medical marijuana.

Any medication affecting your nervous system, brain, or muscles can be used to file DUI charges, even if they are medically necessary for your health. 

As noted in Vehicle Code 23152(f), driving while under the influence of any drug is considered a punishable crime, including drugs that a medical professional legally prescribes.  In other words, a prescription does not exclude you from the responsibility of driving safely. 

DUI for Prescribed Drugs

This law does not strictly focus on whether a drug is legal but rather on whether the consumed substance can impair the driver's ability to operate a vehicle safely. 

If you are pulled over at a traffic stop and show any noticeable signs of impairment, even if you pass a breathalyzer test, which only measures alcohol content, you can be charged with VC 23152(f) DUID. California currently has no specific “legal limit” for drugs that corresponds to the .08% BAC legal limit for alcohol.

Police officers do not have a mobile device to measure the presence of drugs in a driver's system. They will typically contact a state-certified drug recognition expert (DRE) officer to conduct field tests to determine whether a driver is under the influence of drugs.

These police officers have typically received additional training to recognize drug impairment in suspect drivers. Suppose a law enforcement officer pulls you over on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs. In that case, you will probably be asked to take some field sobriety tests that assess physical and cognitive impairment. 

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

What Are the Common Prescription Drugs That Cause Impairment?

A broad range of prescribed medications can significantly affect someone's cognitive and motor functions and impact their ability to drive a motor vehicle safely. These medications include the following: 

  • Opioids, such as medications like codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, percocet, and oxycodone. These drugs are typically prescribed for pain relief but often cause drowsiness and a slower reaction time that can impair driving.
  • Benzodiazepines, typically used to treat anxiety and insomnia, include Xanax, Valium, and Ativan. They often cause dizziness, lack of coordination, and impaired judgment, impairing driving ability.
  • Sleep aids, such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta), can cause significant drowsiness if a person has not slept well.  
  • Stimulants, such as drugs to treat conditions like ADHD, like amphetamines (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin), can sometimes lead to recklessness, agitation, and difficulty focusing, impacting driving ability.
  • Cough syrup, nighttime cold, or flu medicine can cause drowsiness.
  • Antidepressants can impair driving, like alcohol.
  • Antihistamines are typically used to treat allergies and cold symptoms. They can cause drowsiness and affect driving abilities.
  • Muscle relaxants, such as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) and carisoprodol (Soma), relieve muscle spasms and tightness. Still, they often cause drowsiness and slowed reaction times that impair one's ability to drive a car.

Notably, the commonly prescribed drugs of Vicodin or Xanax are a significant source of driving impairment. There are also other common medicines seen in DUI cases, such as anxiety medication, prescription painkillers, and anything that causes drowsiness or a lightheaded sensation.

What Are the DUID Penalties?

The penalties for Vehicle Code 23152(f) DUID will depend on the circumstances of the case, such as the following:

  • First-time offenders will likely receive probation (three years), a $390 fine, license suspension (six months), and mandatory DUI school (three months). 
  • Subsequent offenses will include mandatory jail time that will increase in length with each offense.
  • After the third offense, or if someone was hurt or killed by your actions, you could face felony charges with up to four years in prison. Suspension or revocation of the driver's license for at least one year.

Notably, anyone charged with driving under the influence of drugs is not eligible for California drug diversion programs. Still, it might be possible to negotiate the case to a reduced charge of Health and Safety Code 11550 HS being under the influence of a controlled substance, allowing participation in diversion. 

What Are the Legal Defenses for DUID?

Our California criminal defense lawyers could utilize several strategies if you are accused of violating California Vehicle Code 23152(f) driving under the influence of drugs, specifically prescribed medication, such as the following:

  • Lack of probable cause to make the traffic stop.
  • You were not advised of your Miranda rights before questioning.
  • Police did properly follow California Code of Regulations Title 17 procedures for collecting, storing, and analyzing breath or blood samples.
  • Challenge field sobriety testing.
  • Challenge chemical testing results.
  • Medical defense.
  • Blood split.

Field sobriety tests are subjective and rely on the officer's interpretation. Some factors, such as nervousness, physical disabilities, or wearing high-heeled shoes, can affect performance and results. Thus, perhaps we can argue the validity of these tests.

Legal Defenses for DUID

Chemical tests can also be flawed due to improper administration, faulty equipment, or contamination of samples. Further, these tests determine the presence and quantity of the drug but do not definitively prove impairment. 

Notably, some drugs may remain in your system for many days after any impairment has worn off. Perhaps we can argue that you had not recently taken the medication and, therefore, were not impaired.

Some medical conditions can mimic signs of drug impairment or affect test results, such as diabetes, neurological disorders, or fatigue, which can cause symptoms like drug impairment. Perhaps we can argue you have a medical condition. 

Under California DUI laws, police must save a portion of the blood draw for up to one year for retesting by the defendant. Perhaps we can have the blood sample independently tested, known as a “blood split.”  Contact our law firm, Cron, Israels & Stark, based in Los Angeles, CA, for more information.

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About the Author

Sam Israels

Sam J. Israels is a Law Firm partner with the Law Offices of Cron, Israels, & Stark. Mr. Israels received his J.D. degree from the Santa Clara University School of Law. Mr. Israels also previously worked at the Los Angeles Office of the City Attorney. He is admitted to practice law in the State o...

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