California DUI for Sleep Driving

Posted by Jon Ibanez on September 29th, 2014

We’ve all heard crazy stories about the things people do when they sleepwalk. Robert Wood, a 55 year old chef sleepwalks over to his kitchen to cook on a regular basis. Rachel Ward, a teenager, stepped right out of her second story window while sleeping and fell 25 feet to the ground (she was okay). A woman by the name of Rebekah Armstrong woke to find her husband, Ian, mowing the lawn naked while sleepwalking.

People have also been known to hop into their vehicles and take a drive while sleeping. Under these circumstances, DUI law doesn’t come into play because no intoxicants have been ingested. However, what if the “sleep driving” was induced by sleep aid medication?

California DUI law prohibits people from driving “under the influence” of, not only alcohol, but drugs as well. This includes legal sedative-hypnotic sleep aids like Ambien, Halcion, Sonata, Rozerem and Lunesta.

Now it’s one thing to take one of these drugs and voluntarily drive while conscious. The sedative effects of the drugs can certainly prevent someone from driving with the same caution as that of a sober person of ordinary prudence under the same or similar circumstances.  Therefore, California’s “under the influence” DUI law applies.

But what if someone unconsciously sleep drives as the result of taking sleep aids?

According to the FDA, sleep driving occurs when someone “[drives] while not fully away after ingestion of a sedative-hypnotic product, with no memory of the event.” In 2007, the FDA recognized sleep driving as an “involuntary” act. This was significant because unconsciousness is a complete defense to a criminal charge where the defendant’s actions are the involuntary and the product of the unconsciousness.

The caveat to this principal, however, was that the unconsciousness must not have been produced by voluntary intoxication. This was exactly the issue in the 2012 California Court of Appeals case of People v. Mathson (2012) 210 Cal. App. 4th 1297.

Terry Jack Mathson took prescribed Ambien in an amount that exceeded the prescribed dose. Mathson claimed he was sleep driving when he was arrested for driving while under the influence. The charge was a felony because Mathson suffered three prior convictions within 10 years. He was also charged with being a habitual traffic offender, driving with a suspended license, and driving a vehicle that was not equipped with an ignition interlock device.

Mathson was convicted after the trial judge rejected a jury instruction that they had to find that Mathson was involuntarily intoxicated if it determined that he did not know or have reason to know that the Ambien would cause him to sleep drive.

On appeal, the trial court determined that the proposed jury instruction would give people one “free” sleep driving incident without legal consequences because they would not have reason to know the Ambien would cause them to sleep drive.  Prior to that first incident, sleep driving would be considered involuntary. This would essentially make driving under the influence a specific intent crime, which it is not.

The court concluded that Mathson was liable for driving under the influence because, after taking Ambien for seven or eight years, he should have had reason to know of the drug’s intoxicating effect. In other words, the court rejected the notion that Mathson had to specifically know that he would sleep drive.

Although this is what the court concluded, I question whether Mathson should have reasonably known about his propensity to sleep drive if this was the first incident of sleep driving after seven or eight years of taking the drug.

So a word of caution for those readers out there who take sleep aids: If you sleep drive after taking a sleep aid, you can be convicted under California’s DUI laws even though you are unconscious and may have no recollection of hopping into your car.

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