DUI Charges and Prescription Medications

During the holiday season, parties are plentiful, alcohol is flowing, and prescription medications will be taken. The day before Thanksgiving has been rated as the highest DUI arrest day in the country.

Problem arrests for driving under the influence that stem from doctor-prescribed medications, purchased at pharmacies and legally possessed and ingested, are rising. They count as DUI just the same as a DUI from alcohol. Whether combined or not with alcohol, many medications can render you incapable of safe driving and potentially guilty of DUI.

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This happened to Ms. Graham on August 1, 2012. In Butler County in the Commonwealth Pennsylvania, Ms. Graham was driving too slow for the road conditions and was pulled over for investigation by a 16-year police veteran, knowledgeable of the signs and symptoms of individuals driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He concluded that Ms. Graham was unable to operate her motor vehicle safely as a result of a physical impairment and arrested her for alleged DUI.

Ms. Graham was charged with violating 75 Pa. C.S.A. §§  3802(A)(1) and (D)(3). Subsection (D)(3) focuses on individuals operating or in actual physical control of the movement of a vehicle under the combined influence of alcohol and a drug or combination of drugs to a degree which appears the individual's ability to operate ability to safely drive, operate or be an actual physical control of the movement of the vehicle.

Ms. Graham went to trial. The officer testified that he observed Ms. Graham's vehicle traveling below the speed limit and taking evasive action in the road when the conditions were dry, clear and nothing was in the roadway requiring any type of evasive action. After initiating a traffic stop and approaching the vehicle, he testified, it appeared that Ms. Graham was talking on her phone and did not acknowledge him. Ms. Graham then "fumbled" around her wallet looking for her license and registration, but continued to speak on the phone.

Her eyes were bloodshot, glassy, and her speech was slow and slurred. The officer asked Ms. Graham what, if anything, she drank that evening. She voluntarily answered that she did not drink alcohol but that she did take her prescribed medications of Celexa, HydroPam, and Vistaril. She stated the medications were prescribed for her depression and bipolar disorders. Ms. Graham refused the to submit to a blood draw, acknowledging there would be evidence of her medications in her blood.

The Commonwealth closed is case arguing that the officer's observations and Ms. Graham's failure on three field sobriety tests was insufficient evidence upon which the jury could find her guilty of violating § 3802(d)(3), operating the motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs in any combination.

Significantly, the Commonwealth did not present expert testimony as to the medical effect of Ms. Graham's admitted prescriptions on an individual of her height and size.

In sum, the Commonwealth case was made up solely of the police officer's testimony. It did not present evidence of any blood or alcohol tests to demonstrate the presence of any medication or alcohol in Ms. Graham's body.

Ms. Graham's admission of drug ingestion was the only evidence of such. The officer did testify about his observations of Ms. Graham's physical demeanor on the night in question. The Commonwealth did not qualify him as an expert, but as a layperson with significant experience in these matters.

The jury found Ms. Graham guilty of violating 75 Pa.C.S.A. §3802(d)(3), driving under the influence of drugs that rendered her incapable of safe driving. Ms. Graham filed a petition for judgment of acquittal, asking the trial court to vacate the jury's verdict, arguing the Commonwealth did not present sufficient evidence at the time of trial to meet its burden of proof. The trial court agreed.

The Commonwealth appealed to Superior Court, which reversed on November 26, 2013. Commonwealth v. Graham, 2013 Pa. Super 306 (Pa. Super 2013). The Superior Court rested its decision on the seminal case of Commonwealth v. Griffith, 32 A.3d 1231(Pa. 2011).

In Griffith, the parties introduced no expert testimony as to the pharmacological properties of the drugs the defendant ingested, whether any of the drugs could have impaired the defendant's ability to safely drive, or whether a combination of the drugs could have impaired the defendant's ability to safely drive.

The Supreme Court stated the focus of Section 3802(d)(2) is not upon the type of evidence introduced, but upon whether the totality of the evidence proved to a jury or fact finder that the defendant's inability to drive safely "was the result of the influence of a drug or combination of drugs."

The Graham court then applied the law of Griffith to the facts of the case and expressly held that the evidence (an experienced police officer closely observed [the defendant's] behavior, demeanor, unsteadiness, and inability to perform field sobriety tests, all of which led him to request laboratory tests for the detection of controlled substances in [the defendant's] blood and the defendant's admission to taking prescription medications) was sufficient to support the defendant's conviction for driving under the influence of a drug or combination of drugs.

The lesson from both of these cases is to not talk or say anything incriminating to the police officer who stops you for a traffic stop. Do not admit, acknowledge, suggest, explain, or answer any questions regarding any prescription medication ingestion. These questions seek incriminating answers or blurt-outs that will be used against you. The police officer will put in his police report every word you utter regarding your medication use.

Consequently, if you refuse the blood test — which you are allowed to do — the only evidence of drug use will be your own words. Admissions or tacit statements saying "I took my prescribed medications for…" or "Here is the medication I took' I have a prescription for this…" will be used against you.

The mere fact that you are driving and the officer believes these medications rendered you incapable of safe driving is the problem. Once you admit to taking the medication, the fact finder may consider that admission as the basis to for the officer's description of your "odd" behavior during the traffic stop.

The laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania do not require the prosecutor to introduce an expert to testify about how the medication in question actually affects the ability to drive. All that must be proven is that you took the medication and the officer's testimony about how you were driving. It is then for the judge or jury to decide if you were unable to operate a motor vehicle safely due to the effects of your medication.

Do Not Try to Explain to the Police — call a Lawyer.

If you are pulled over on suspicion of impaired driving, do not admit to taking any medication for any medical condition. If you have already been arrested, contact Hark and Hark online or call our 24-hour DUI defense hotline at 1-877-4-HARK-LAW (1-877-442-7552).

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