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Ambien DUI in California

The police treat drugged driving just as serious as drunk driving. Some drugs can impair a driver's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. This includes illegal narcotics as well as medications. Drivers can face a drug DUI for driving after taking doctor-prescribed medication, even if the driver did not know the drugs would impair their ability to drive. Even long after the drugs have worn off, a blood test may still show the presence of chemicals in the driver's body, making it more difficult to fight an impaired driving criminal charge. 

One of the most common medications for insomnia or sleep disorders is Ambien. Ambien is the brand name for the drug zolpidem, manufactured by Sanofi. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “rare but serious injuries have happened with certain common prescription insomnia medicines because of sleep behaviors, including sleepwalking, sleep driving, and engaging in other activities while not fully awake.”

In some cases, the side effects of sleep medication can cause injury accidents or death. Other sleeping pills that may increase the risk of sleepwalking or sleep driving include: 

  • Lunesta (eszopiclone)
  • Sonata (zaleplon)
  • Edluar
  • Intermezzo
  • Zolpimist

Ambien Defense for Impaired Driving Arrests: 

In 2019, the FDA identified 66 cases of complex sleep behaviors occurring with sleep medication that resulted in serious injury or death. Accidents included motor vehicle collisions with the patient driving. The manufacturer acknowledges that patients “may get up out of bed while not being fully awake and do an activity that you do not know you are doing.” 

This has given rise to the so-called “Ambien defense.” Drivers who are arrested and charged with a criminal offense while driving may attempt to claim an affirmative defense because they were not conscious or aware at the time. However, simply claiming you were driving impaired because of Ambien may not be enough to convince jurors. If you were arrested on suspicion of impaired driving after taking Ambien, talk to your criminal defense lawyer for advice on the best legal defense strategies.

One of the problems with the Ambien defense is that patients are generally advised by their doctors or pharmacists about the possible side effects and adverse events. Black box warnings and instructions on the medication warn patients of complex sleep behaviors. “Complex sleep behaviors including sleep-walking, sleep-driving, and engaging in other activities while not fully awake may occur following use of AMBIEN. Some of these events may result in serious injuries, including death.”

How Does Ambien Impair Driving?

Most patients who take Ambien are not aware of the physical effects because they are asleep at the time, or not fully awake. Some possible physical effects of taking Ambien may include: 

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Loss of coordination
  • Confusion
  • Balance problems
  • Visual distortion

Ambien generally takes effect shortly after taking the medicine. Individuals may begin to feel sleepy within about 30 minutes, with the maximum effect occurring between 1 and 3 hours, depending on the specific drug and dosage. However, the drug may stay in the body for more than 12 hours. 

Drug DUI Laws in California

California's drugged driving laws cover many types of substances, including illegal drugs, prescription medication, and even over-the-counter drugs, if it impairs a driver's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Under California Vehicle Code Section 23152(f), “it is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.”

Under California Vehicle Code Section 312, a drug can include any “substance or combination of substances, other than alcohol, which could so affect the nervous system, brain, or muscles of a person as to impair, to an appreciable degree, his ability to drive a vehicle in the manner that an ordinarily prudent and cautious man, in full possession of his faculties, using reasonable care, would drive a similar vehicle under like conditions.”

Ambien is classified as a Schedule IV drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Schedule IV drugs, “are defined as drugs with a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence. Most people who take Ambien will never get into a car and drive. However, combining Ambien with other drugs or alcohol can increase the risk of impaired driving. 

Drug DUI Penalties

Most 1st-time drugged driving charges in California are misdemeanors. The penalties for a misdemeanor DUI can involve: 

The penalties generally increase for a subsequent DUI within 10 years. A DUI conviction may have more severe penalties if the driver was involved in an injury accident, fatal accident, or had a child passenger in the vehicle. In some cases, drugged driving can be charged as a felony DUI

Drug DUI Defense for East Bay Drivers 

East Bay attorney Lynn Gorelick has more than 37 years of DUI defense experience and understands how to approach each case for the greatest chance for success. Representing individuals in Alameda County and Contra Costa County, Lynn Gorelick is familiar with the local criminal laws, local officers, and the prosecutors involved. Contact East Bay DUI defense attorney Lynn Gorelick today.

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