California’s DUI laws can be complex and confusing. In this section, our attorneys break down the rules and explain the process.
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The Ambien defense is a legal defense to charges of driving under the influence of drugs (DUID). The defense is largely based on the fact that some prescription drugs and sleeping medications (such as Ambien) can put a person in a trance similar to sleepwalking. When this happens and a person is driving it is often referred to as “sleep-driving.”
While the defense has the potential to work under the right set of facts, it has weaknesses because most people on these medications are warned of their side effects, including the possibility of sleep-driving. The warning works to convert a seemingly unconscious act into a voluntary one.
Note that most jurisdictions have DUID laws in addition to laws on DUI/DWI. DUID laws say that a motorist commits a crime if he/she operates a vehicle while under the influence of drugs.
A violation of these rules is typically charged as a misdemeanor (as opposed to a felony). A first-time offense is normally punishable by up to six months in county jail and fines in excess of $1,000.
The defense says that an accused is not guilty of DUID because he/she was unknowingly driving a car since a prescription or sleep medicine caused him/her to sleep drive. “Sleep drive” means that:
Some of these “sedative-hypnotic” sleeping medicines are:
The “under the influence of Ambien” defense is very much like the legal defense of unconsciousness, which is a complete defense to criminal charges. This is true, though, unless a defendant voluntarily induced his/her unconsciousness.
In most cases, this criminal defense is limited in operation. This is because people on these drugs are usually warned of:
The warning is essentially the same thing as a voluntary intoxication scenario – and voluntary intoxication (as opposed to involuntary intoxication) is not a defense to any form of DUID or driving under the influence of alcohol charge.
A defendant could try to assert that he/she was never warned that Ambien, or a similar, drug could cause sleep-driving. The assertion, though, is weakened by the fact that the label on Ambien warns of the dangers of driving on the sleep aid.
It informs a person to “Go to bed at least 7 to 8 hours. Do not drive until fully awake.” The label is mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Note that the Ambien defense gained in popularity in 2018 after Roseanne Barr blamed the drug for a racist tweet and her tweeting habits.[i] Kerry Kennedy also helped mainstream the defense in 2014, when she told a New York jury that Ambien overtook her and caused her to crash her car.[ii]
Ambien is made by Sanofi Aventis. Side effects of Ambien include:
People facing a DUI charge or DUID charge must talk with defense attorneys or DUI lawyers to learn if an Ambien defense would help their case.
Most jurisdictions have DUID laws as well as laws on driving under the influence of alcohol.
DUID laws make it a criminal offense for a person to operate a vehicle while under the influence of drugs.
Drivers are considered to be “under the influence” when they can no longer drive like a sober person under similar circumstances due to:
Note that about 15 states in the U.S. have “per se” drugged driving laws. These laws make it a crime for people to operate a vehicle with any detectable amount of certain drugs in their system. Some of these states include:
Violations of a DUID law are typically charged as misdemeanors. The crimes are usually punishable by:
California Vehicle Code 23152f VC is the state statute that makes it a crime for a person to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs.[iv]
The code section applies to:
As to the Ambien defense, California courts have suggested that sleep-driving is not necessarily an effective defense for fighting DUI of sleeping pill charges.
In the case of People v. Mathson, a California Court of Appeal considered the case of a defendant who was convicted of DUI of sleeping pills after consuming Ambien at home, falling asleep, and then getting into his car and driving recklessly. The defendant claimed that he had been sleep-driving and thus should not be criminally liable.[v]
But the court did not accept his sleep-driving defense. Even though he had never had a sleep-driving episode before, the defendant in Mathson had been taking Ambien for years and had been warned that sleep-driving was a possibility.
This meant that his situation was equivalent to someone who was “voluntarily intoxicated.”[vi]
People v. Mathson suggests that defendants in California will have a difficult time asserting the Ambien defense. Their strongest argument will be that they were not aware of the risk of sleep-driving. This is a challenging argument to make because of the FDA warning requirements.
[i] See, for example, NPR website – “Roseanne Barr Says Ambien Played Role In Racist Tweet That Spiked Her Show’s Reboot.”
[ii] See, for example, ABC news website – “Kerry Kennedy Says Ambien ‘Overtook’ Her, Causing Car Crash.”
[vi] See same.
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.