The most widely known California DUI law is Vehicle Code section 23152(b) which makes it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher. Some people realize that if a person is arrested for a DUI, they will likely also be charged with Vehicle Code section 23152(a) which makes it illegal to drive “under the influence,” meaning that the driver cannot drive as a reasonable sober person would. Very few people, however, are aware of one of California’s more obscure DUI laws; driving while addicted.
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.”
The purpose of DUI law is to protect the public from drivers who, at the time of driving, are under the influence. So you may be asking yourself the same question that I asked myself the first time I learned of this law: If an addict is not under the influence at the time of driving, how can they still be prosecuted for a DUI? Shouldn’t the law only punish drivers who actually pose a risk to the roads because of current intoxication?
In the 1965 case of People v. O’Neil, the California Supreme Court upheld the law and explained that it, like the other, better-known DUI laws, also protects the public.
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.”
In other words, the court concluded that a person who is an addict and going through withdrawals can be a danger to the roads. This conclusion presumes that all addicts at all times go through withdrawals and can still be arrested, charged, and convicted of a California DUI. While this presumption is false because not all addicts are always suffering from withdrawals, the California Supreme Court went on to say prosecutors, however, do not need to prove that the driver was suffering from withdrawals at the time of arrest.
“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.”
If you ask me, the California Supreme Court is contradicting itself. In essence, it is saying that the purpose of the law is to protect the public from addicts who are suffering from withdrawal symptoms while driving, yet it doesn’t require that the addict be suffering from the withdrawal symptoms at the time of driving.
Although this section of the vehicle code is rarely enforced, law enforcement and prosecutors 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.
So, again I ask, “Shouldn’t DUI law punish people who actually pose a risk to the public?” Apparently, according to the California Supreme Court, the answer is no.