A Former Prosecutor Defending Clients in Wyoming and South Dakota
Nationally, the incidence of drunk driving is declining. But according to law enforcement officials, the frequency of people being stopped and charged with driving under the influence of drugs is increasing as prescriptions for narcotic painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, and sleep aids are on the rise.
But the prevalence of drug-impaired driving is difficult to quantify because most states lump drugged-driving statistics in with DWUI statistics.
Drivers who are under the influence of prescription drugs often exhibit symptoms that are similar to people who are under the influence of alcohol.
For example, people under the influence of sedatives like Valium and Xanax may appear tired and slur their speech. Anti-anxiety drugs dull alertness and slow reaction time. Stimulants can encourage risk-taking and hurt a person’s ability to judge distances. And mixing prescription drugs with other drugs or alcohol can increase impairment and increase the risk of a car crash
Drivers who are stopped and charged with DWUI because they exhibited symptoms similar to drunk driving, like being tired and slurring their speech, rightfully contend that they have not been drinking. However, it’s important to understand that if you are driving while under the influence of prescription drugs you can be charged with DWUI for prescription drugs.
Most states have set a per se limit for levels of prohibited drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or PCP. But setting limits to charge someone with a DWUI for prescription drugs is more difficult. One reason is that the complex chemistry of prescription drugs makes it difficult to predict the effect of a prescription drug on a person. The side effects of prescription medications vary greatly depending not only on the drug, but also on the person taking it. Also, it can be difficult to determine how soon before getting on the road a driver took the drug, because some drugs remain in a person’s body for weeks.
Defending someone who is charged with a DWUI for prescription drugs is different than defending someone charged with a DWUI for alcohol. When it comes to prescription drugs, Wyoming and other states have little agreement on what level of drugs in the blood causes impaired driving.
During a routine traffic stop, if an officer suspects a person is under the influence of prescription drugs they can order a blood or urine test. If the test comes back positive for prescription drugs, you could be charged with DWUI.
Many drivers will contend that they did not know that a prescription drug could impair their ability to operate a motor vehicle. However, all prescription medications that have the capacity to impair a person’s ability to drive come with a prominently displayed warning label that cautions people against operating heavy machinery while under the influence of a particular drug.
Because there are no per se limits for drugged driving, prosecutors must rely on the testimony of “drug recognition experts” who are trained to spot impairment in motorists.
Wyoming has two ways of charging and convicting a person of DWUI: a per se violation, and ‘impairment.” A per se DWUI charge is based on the amount of drugs or alcohol in a person’s system. The most common per se violation, of course, is the well-know .08% BAC limit for an alcohol-related DWUI. Wyoming has other per se limits for other illegal drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and PCP.
An impairment-based DWUI charge, however, is based on the observed effects of a drug on a particular driver. These charges are more difficult to prove. To prove an impairment-based DWUI the prosecutor must demonstrate that the drug had a “substantial effect” on the driver.
In cases of driving under the influence of prescription drugs, a Wyoming prosecutor will try to convict based on an impairment-based DWUI. Generally, it does not matter what the intoxicating substance was, just that it had a substantial effect on the driver’s ability to operate a vehicle.
The art of DWUI defense is that, while all cases share the same basic elements, the way those elements are applied to a particular case can create substantially different outcomes.
Many people who drive under the influence of prescription drugs like Xanax and Lexapro appear to be intoxicated. They may have bloodshot eyes, slur their speech, and be unsteady on their feet.
But a skilled and experienced DWUI defense lawyer can exploit sloppy police work to secure a Not Guilty verdict.
For example, most police reports for a suspected DWUI say something like
"Upon approaching the vehicle I detected an odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle, the suspect had red, bloodshot, watery eyes, slurred speech, and was unsteady on his (or her) feet.”
However, if you were arrested for driving while under the influence of prescription drugs, it is unlikely that you had anything to drink. The officer’s claim of an “odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle” can then be used to show that the officer’s investigation was less than thorough. After all, how does a person blow a 0.00 if they didn’t have anything to drink?
A skilled Wyoming DWUI defense attorney can use the officer’s lack of credibility in a motion to suppress evidence.
At trial, this lack of credibility can be exploited to create reasonable doubt.
In a different situation, your DWUI defense attorney may be able to argue that you were not knowinglyintoxicated. For example, if you meant to take an Advil but accidentally took a Zoloft, your lawyer might be able to get you out of a DWUI charge. Likewise, if you were involuntarily drugged, a DWUI defense lawyer might be able to secure a Not Guilty verdict if you ingested prescription medication without your knowledge.
Without the presence of alcohol, the prosecution has a much more difficult time proving a DWUI. Because there is no per se violation for a prescription drug DWUI it is difficult for the prosecutor to prove that the drug actually caused the impairment. Instead, the prosecutor must rely on the much more subjective impairment approach.
A skilled DWUI defense attorney can argue that a wide range of different causes could have contributed to your alleged impairment. Factors could include sickness, mental health problems, drowsiness, depression, and any number of other commonplace causes. Your Wyoming DWUI defense lawyer can create reasonable doubt in the mind of the jurors by identifying alternative causes for your perceived impairment.
If you are facing Wyoming DWUI charges for prescription drugs, you need an experienced team of DWUI defense professionals on your side. Contact Just Criminal Law to schedule an appointment to discuss your defense. Contact us today at (307) 686-6556, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or complete our online form.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is offered for educational purposes only. This information is not offered as legal advice. A person accused of a crime should always consult with an attorney before making decisions that have legal consequences.