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Benzodiazepine DUI in California

Patients on anxiety medication or sleep disorder medication can find themselves under arrest for a DUI even if they did nothing wrong. California's impaired driving laws are broad enough to cover prescription medication and even over-the-counter medication. If the officer claimed you appeared impaired, it could lead to a drug DUI arrest, loss of your license, and a criminal record. If you were arrested for driving under the influence of anti-anxiety drugs, talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer for legal advice. 

Benzodiazepines Drugs and Uses

Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that are used for treating anxiety and other medical conditions. Benzodiazepines are classified as a subcategory of central nervous system (CNS) depressants in police drug recognition training. Also classified as anti-anxiety tranquilizers, or “minor tranquilizers,” common benzodiazepine drugs include: 

  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Clorazepate (Tranxene)
  • Oxazepam (Serax)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)
  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Midazolam (Versed)
  • Triazolam (Halcion)
  • Estazolam (Prosom)
  • Temazepam (Restoril)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Flurazepam (Dalmane)

People are prescribed benzodiazepines for a number of medical conditions, including anxiety disorders, seizure disorders, insomnia, muscle relaxation, or alcohol withdrawal. Many of these drugs contain warnings on the packaging that they can impair a user's ability to drive. However, legitimate patients are often unaware of the impairing effects of these drugs. It is only after getting pulled over for a minor traffic violation that users find out they can be charged with a drug DUI after taking their medication. 

Impairment can increase with the use of these drugs in combination with alcohol. Some people use these drugs without a prescription in combination with alcohol to intensify the effects. Some “street names” of these drugs include: 

  • Benzos
  • Tranks
  • Candy
  • Xanies
  • Bars

California's drug DUI laws do not require the driver to know they are impaired or know the drug has impairing effects. This means a driver could get a DUI for taking prescription medicine that they did not know could affect their driving ability. A blood test would likely show the presence of drugs in the driver's body, which the prosecutor could use against the driver. It is important to understand your rights after a DUI arrest to avoid a criminal record and loss of your license. 

Driving Under the Influence of Depressants in California

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.”

The term “drug” includes illegal drugs, prescription medication, and even OTC medicine. 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.”

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), benzodiazepines are considered a Schedule IV drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule IV substances are considered to have a low potential for abuse, relative to higher schedule substances. 

Signs of Drug Use and Chemical Testing

Police officers are not medical experts. Instead, many police officers undergo a short training program to qualify them as “drug recognition experts” (DREs).  This includes telling the officers some of the signs of possible drug use during a traffic stop. Drug recognition of CNS depressants includes: 

  • Barbiturates
  • Non-barbiturates
  • Anti-anxiety tranquilizers
  • Antidepressants
  • Antipsychotic tranquilizers

According to DRE training, CNS depressants impair the mind and body in a similar way to alcohol impairment, including: 

  • Reduced social inhibitions
  • Divided attention impairment
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Impaired judgment and concentration
  • Impaired vision
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech

The police may try and get the driver to perform Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs). These are not mandatory in California and can inaccurately make you appear impaired, even if you are completely sober. According to law enforcement, expected results of SFSTs under benzos include: 

  • Horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) present
  • Walk-and-turn test results similar to alcohol impairment
  • One-leg-stand test results similar to alcohol impairment

When the police suspect a driver is under the influence of alcohol, they may ask for a breath test. However, if the police suspect drug impairment, they will request a blood sample for chemical testing. A blood test panel can look for signs of a number of common drug types, including: 

  • Cannabis  
  • Stimulants 
  • Depressants, including benzodiazepines
  • Hallucinogens  
  • Dissociative drugs  
  • Opioids
  • Inhalants 

The blood test may show the presence of drugs in the defendant's body but may not indicate whether the driver was impaired at the time of the traffic stop. The effects of the drug may have worn off before the driver got into the car but would still show up on a drug test. Talk to your DUI defense lawyer about challenging a drug DUI blood test. 

Penalties for a Drug DUI in California

Most first-offender drug DUIs are misdemeanor offenses. The penalties for a misdemeanor drug DUI may include: 

Drug DUI Defenses for East Bay Drivers 

Talk to your East Bay DUI defense attorney about legal defenses for your criminal charges. East Bay attorney Lynn Gorelick has more than 37 years of drug 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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