Most people know that in California, a person cannot drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more. Some know that, additionally, a person can be charged separately with “driving under the influence” if the officer observed facts that would lead a prosecutor to believe that the person couldn’t drive like a sober person regardless of their blood alcohol content. But few people, however, are aware of California’s least known DUI law.
It is actually illegal in California to drive a vehicle while addicted to a drug.
Under California Vehicle Code section 23152(c), “[i]t is unlawful for any person who is addicted to the use of any drug to drive a vehicle.”
When I first learned that this law existed, I asked myself the same questions that you’re probably asking yourself right now: If an addict is not under the influence at the time of driving, how can still be prosecuted for a DUI? Shouldn’t the law only punish those who actually pose a risk to the roads because of current intoxication?
In 1965, the California Supreme Court justified the law in the case of People v. O’Neil.
In looking at the legislative intent in drafting the law, the court concluded, “when an individual has reached the point that his body reacts physically to the termination of drug administration, he has become ‘addicted’ within the meaning and purpose of [23152(c)]. Although physical dependency or the abstinence syndrome is but one of the characteristics of addiction, it is of crucial import in light of the purpose of [23152(c)] since it renders the individual a potential danger on the highway.”
Although it’s a stretch, the court concluded that a person who is an addict and going through withdrawals can be a danger to the roads. So if that’s the case, can a person who is an addict, but not going through withdrawals, still be arrested, charged, and convicted? According to the California Supreme Court, yes.
“The prosecution need not prove that the individual was actually in a state of withdrawal while driving the vehicle. The prosecution’s burden is to show (1) that the defendant has become ‘emotionally dependent’ on the drug in the sense that he experiences a compulsive need to continue its use, (2) that he has developed a ‘tolerance’ to its effects and hence requires larger and more potent doses, and (3) that he has become ‘physically dependent’ so as to suffer withdrawal symptoms if he is deprived of his dosage.”
Although this section of the vehicle code is rarely enforced, California technically can continue to punish drivers who are addicted to a drug even though they may not be, at the time of driving, under the influence of a drug.
Apparently some parts of the California Vehicle Code like this section doesn’t exist to protect the public from unsafe drivers, but rather punish people with arbitrary labels who can and do drive safe.