Is the “Ambien Defense” Valid in California?

Yes, the “Ambien Defense” can be valid in California, but it would take extraordinary circumstances for a person to beat a DUID charge using this defense. Criminal defense attorneys have an uphill battle in these cases. A DUID charge is similar to a DUI charge of driving while under the influence of alcohol, but a DUID charge means driving under the influence of drugs. 

Even if the Ambien defense does not get the DUID charges dismissed, a DUID conviction is usually a misdemeanor, while a DUI conviction is sometimes a felony. A California DUI attorney can talk with you about your situation and advocate vigorously on your behalf.

How Can Ambien Cause Impaired Driving?

Ambien is a brand name for a specific sleeping pill. It is one of many prescription medications that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies as drugs used to induce or maintain sleep (sedative-hypnotic). Some examples of prescription sedative-hypnotic drugs are:

  • Zolpidem (sold as Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo, and Zolpimist)
  • Triazolam (Halcion)
  • Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  • Secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Zaleplon (Sonata)

The FDA states that over-the-counter (non-prescription) drugs like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Unisom (doxylamine) can treat insomnia and that many cold and headache multidrug products contain these substances.

The FDA issued a safety announcement on May 14, 2013, warning that there was a known risk of next-morning driving impairment after using zolpidem products, specifically Ambien, Ambien CR, and Edluar. The FDA approved new label changes that warned people taking those products against driving or engaging in “other activities that require complete mental alertness the day after taking the drug because zolpidem levels can remain high enough the next day to impair these activities.” 

 

What is Sleep-Driving?

A research study reported in 2011 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine explored eight clinical patients and six legal defendants who reported unusual behaviors after taking zolpidem. The legal defendants were facing charges of driving under the influence. The author of the article served as an expert witness for the defense in those criminal cases.

The study revealed that sleep-driving and other unusual conduct can happen after a person takes zolpidem products. The patients and defendants had periods of confusion and poor motor control. All of these study participants appeared to be fully awake and interacting with their environment, although they described having amnesia for between three and five hours during the episode. 

Similar to sleepwalking, the patient or defendant got into their vehicle and drove around without being in control of or aware of the fact that they were doing so. To an observer, the driver would look awake and acting intentionally.

Some episodes happened after taking zolpidem during the daytime, while others occurred after ingesting zolpidem at bedtime. At least one participant accidentally took zolpidem because of mistaking the drug for a medication with a similar size and shape of pill.

The Legal Hurdles for Trying to Use the Ambien Defense

Prosecutors argue that it is no defense if a person takes a substance known to cause sleep-driving or to impair the ability to drive, even the next day. The labeling on Ambien and similar sleeping pills warns about the side effects. The challenge is that when an individual sleep drives after taking zolpidem, the prosecutor will allege that they should have taken reasonable measures to prevent sleep-driving from happening.

A common analogy is when a defendant tries to avoid the consequences of the DUI case by saying that the alcohol made him unable to control his actions. If a DUI defendant voluntarily consumed alcohol or should have known that he ingested substances containing alcohol, then he cannot evade the drunk driving laws.

When someone gets charged with a DUI or a DUID for being under the influence of sleeping pills, his best hope of successfully using the Ambien defense is to prove that he intended to take some other medication, not the sleeping pill, and that he took the pill accidentally or that he  was unaware of the risk of sleep-driving. 

Judges and juries will naturally be skeptical of people trying to use the Ambien defense  of this legal maneuver.

If you or someone you know is facing DUI charges for being under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of drugs and alcohol, you want to get legal advice immediately. You do not want to try to fight DUI charges, particularly something as complex as using the Ambien defense, without having a California DUI lawyer by your side.

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