California’s driving under the influence of drugs (“DUID”) law applies to all drugs that impair one’s driving abilities – including prescription painkillers.1 This means that you may face California DUI penalties for driving under the influence of
- or other narcotic painkillers.
What Is the Legal Definition of DUI of Painkillers?
The legal definition of DUI of Vicodin/DUI of painkillers consists of these “elements of the crime”:
- You drove a vehicle,
- While you were under the influence of narcotic prescription painkillers (or the combined influence of painkillers and alcohol or another drug), and
- The painkillers impaired your physical or mental abilities to such a degree that you could no longer drive in the way that an ordinarily cautious sober person would drive under similar circumstances.2
Driving under the influence of painkillers is a crime regardless of whether you:
- Were using the Vicodin or another painkiller recreationally, or
- Had a valid prescription and were taking the painkillers for legitimate medical purposes.
(However, if you are arrested for DUI of Vicodin or another prescription painkiller and you have the medicine in your possession without a prescription, you could also be charged with Health & Safety Code 11350 HS possession of a controlled substance.)
Example: Marco breaks his collarbone playing football. He is prescribed Demerol for the pain from his injury.
The Demerol label comes with a warning about driving a car under its influence and about mixing the Demerol with alcohol or other drugs. Marco quickly discovers that the Demerol makes him drowsy and interferes with his alertness.
One night Marco takes his prescribed dose of Demerol and then meets a friend for dinner at a restaurant. He has one beer with his meal. The beer plus the Demerol make him extremely woozy, but he decides to drive home anyway. On the way home he loses control of his car and crashes it onto a sidewalk.
Marco is probably guilty of DUI of painkillers even though he was taking the painkiller legally.
Which Medications Can Lead to DUI of Painkillers Charges?
People sometimes use the term “DUI of Vicodin” or “DUI of hydrocodone” to refer to the offense of “DUI of painkillers.” In fact, there are a number of painkillers that can support DUI of painkillers charges.
According to Pasadena DUI defense attorney John Murray3
“The medications involved in most DUI of painkillers charges are part of the class called ‘narcotic analgesics.’ These drugs relieve pain--but they can also slow reflexes, impair thinking and reaction times, and even induce unconsciousness. Some common painkillers, like Vicodin, are in the class known as narcotic analgesic combinations, which means they are a mixture of narcotic analgesics and another common pain-relieving ingredient such as acetaminophen or aspirin.”
The most common narcotic analgesic, and narcotic analgesic combination, painkillers include:
- Vicodin (hydrocodone),
- Oxycontin (oxycodone),
- Demerol, and
Typical signs/symptoms of using these types of drugs--which are also what officers look for when making DUI of painkillers arrests--include:
- Constricted pupils,
- Droopy eyelids,
- Slowed vital signs,
- Low, raspy speech, and
How Does the Prosecutor Prove That I Was DUI Vicodin?
When prosecuting a California DUI hydrocodone/painkillers case, the prosecutor will elicit testimony from some or all of:
- The arresting officer,
- The Drug Recognition Evaluator (DRE), and
- Your local law enforcement agency’s criminalist.
These people will testify that the signs/symptoms that you displayed were consistent with Vicodin or other painkiller use--as well as the mental and physical impairment that is key to a successful prosecution for driving under the influence of painkillers.
What Are the Penalties for DUI of Painkillers?
If you are convicted of DUI of painkillers, you will face standard DUI of drugs penalties.4
For a first through the third offense, driving under the influence of pain meds is a California misdemeanor.
But DUI of Vicodin may be charged as felony DUI if any of the following is true:
- You have three (3) or more prior convictions for California DUI or California “wet reckless” in the previous ten (10) years;
- You have a prior conviction for felony DUI; or
- You cause bodily injury to another person by driving under the influence of painkillers.5
For both misdemeanor and felony painkiller DUI, the consequences usually include criminal fines, a suspension of your driver’s license, mandatory DUI school and possibly jail time.
The following table summarizes the penalties for driving under the influence of painkillers:
|Type of DUI of Painkillers||Jail/Prison Sentence||Fine||Driver’s License Suspension or Revocation||DUI School|
|1st offense DUI of painkillers||Up to 6 months in county jail||$390-1000||6 to 10 months (convertible to restricted license)||3 or 9 months|
|2nd offense DUI of painkillers||96 hours to 1 year in county jail||$390-1000||2 years (convertible to restricted license after 12 months)||18 or 30 months|
|3rd offense DUI of painkillers||120 days to 1 year in county jail||$390-1000||3 years (convertible to restricted license after 18 months)||30 months|
|DUI of painkillers with injury (misdemeanor)||5 days to 1 year in county jail||$390-5000, plus restitution to injured parties||1 to 3 years||3, 18 or 30 months|
|DUI of painkillers with injury (felony)||16 months to 16 years in state prison||$1015-5000, plus restitution to injured parties||5 years||18 or 30 months|
|Felony DUI of painkillers||16 months, 2 years or 3 years in state prison||$390-1000||4 years||18 or 30 months|
|Type of DUI of Painkillers||Penalties|
|1st offense DUI of painkillers||Up to 6 months in county jail; $390-1000 in fines; driver’s license suspension for 6 to 10 months; 3 or 9 months of DUI school|
|2nd offense DUI of painkillers||96 hours to 1 year in county jail; $390-1000 in fines; driver’s license suspension for 2 years; 18 or 30 months of DUI school|
|3rd offense DUI of painkillers||120 days to 1 year in county jail; $390-1000 in fines; driver’s license suspension for 3 years; 30 months of DUI school|
|DUI of painkillers with injury (misdemeanor)||5 days to 1 year in county jail; $390-5000 in fines plus restitution to injured parties; driver’s license suspension for 1 to 3 years; 3, 18 or 30 months of DUI school|
|DUI of painkillers with injury (felony)||16 months to 16 years in state prison; $1015-5000 in fines plus restitution to injured parties; driver’s license suspension for 5 years; 18 or 30 months of DUI school|
|Felony DUI of painkillers||16 months, 2 years or 3 years in state prison; $390-1000 in fines; driver’s license suspension for 4 years; 18 or 30 months of DUI school|
How Do I Fight Charges of California DUI of Vicodin / Hydrocodone?
The best defense for fighting a California DUI Vicodin charge depends on the circumstances of the case.
That said, commonly helpful legal defenses to DUI of painkillers charges include:
- Poor police tactics,
- Improper investigation procedures,
- Possible contamination of your blood or urine sample, and
- Defense expert testimony arguing that the Vicodin or other painkiller was within the therapeutic range and/or that you weren’t actually “under the influence” of prescription pain medication.
What About the Blood Sample That Was Taken During My DUI Painkillers Arrest?
When the police take a DUI blood test after your arrest for DUI of Vicodin or another painkiller, they send a portion of the sample to a crime lab for analysis. But the police must retain a portion of the sample for the defense--called a “blood split.”
A blood split in a DUI of painkillers case allows your DUI defense attorney to have your blood independently analyzed (at a separate laboratory) for the drug’s presence and quantity.
Unlike DUI of drugs cases that involve illicit drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine, the amount of the prescription pain medication found in your system often can help in fighting DUI of painkillers charges.
“Therapeutic” or typically prescribed levels of Vicodin or other painkillers may be insufficient to cause mental and physical impairment--making it much easier for your California “driving under the influence of painkillers” defense attorney to secure a dismissal or reduced charge.
Moreover, in re-testing the blood in DUI of painkillers cases, DUI defense attorneys sometimes find that the original sample got contaminated due to faulty collection or storage procedures. This may lead to the blood results being excluded from evidence--and the entire DUI hydrocodone/painkillers case being dismissed.
Call us for help . . .
We can provide a free consultation in the office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
If you’re facing charges of violating Nevada DUI Vicodin law, please see our informational article on Nevada DUI Vicodin law.
- Vehicle Code 23152(f) VC — Driving under the influence of drugs [including driving under the influence of Vicodin or other painkillers]. (“(f) It is unlawful for any person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.”) See also California Jury Instructions, Criminal CALJIC 16.830 — Misdemeanor Driving Under the Influence. (“[The term “drug,” as used in this instruction, means 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] [her] ability to drive a vehicle in the manner that an ordinarily prudent and cautious person, in full possession of [his] [her] faculties, using reasonable care, would drive a similar vehicle under like conditions.].”)
- California Jury Instructions, Criminal CALJIC 16.830 — Misdemeanor Driving Under the Influence [includes VC 23152(e) driving under the influence of painkillers]. (“. . . In order to prove this crime, each of the following elements must be proved: 1 A person drove a vehicle; and 2 At the time, the driver was [under the influence of] [any alcoholic beverage] [or] [any drug] [or] [under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug] [or] [addicted to the use of any drug].)” See also CALJIC 16.831 — Alcohol or Drug Influenced Driving-“Under the Influence”-Defined [including DUI of painkillers]. (“A person is . . . [under the influence of a drug] [under the combined influence of an alcoholic beverage and a drug] when as a result of . . . [using a drug] [his] [her] physical or mental abilities are impaired to such a degree that [he] [she] no longer has the ability to drive a vehicle with the caution characteristic of a sober person of ordinary prudence under the same or similar circumstances.”) Note that “driving under the influence of drugs” used to be covered along with DUI alcohol under VC 23152(a), prior to the creation of VC 23152(e). This is why jury instructions on DUI drugs/DUI of Vicodin and other painkillers still refer to VC 23152(a).
- Pasadena DUI defense attorney John Murray is one of Southern California’s leading experts on DUI and DUI of drugs (including DUI of prescription drugs/painkillers). He has considerable experience defending clients in both the California Superior Courts and at DMV hearing locations throughout southern California.
- See, e.g., Vehicle Code 23536 VC – Conviction of first violation of § 23152; punishment. (“(a) If a person is convicted of a first violation of Section 23152, that person shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than 96 hours, at least 48 hours of which shall be continuous, nor more than six months, and by a fine of not less than three hundred ninety dollars ($390), nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000). . . . (c) The person’s privilege to operate a motor vehicle shall be suspended by the department under paragraph (1) of subdivision (a) of Section 13352 or Section 13352.1. The court shall require the person to surrender the driver’s license to the court in accordance with Section 13550.”)
- See Vehicle Code 23550 VC — Multiple offenses; punishment [for DUI, including DUI of painkillers].