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DUI Defense: “Ambien Defense”

What happens if you are arrested for DUI after taking prescription drugs (such as Ambien) that lead you to experience a state of trance similar to sleepwalking. In such cases, the person experiences what we call “sleep-driving.” This is where the Ambien defense comes into play. The Ambien defense is a legal defense that may be raised in charges of driving under the influence of drugs (DUID). DUI of Ambien is prosecuted in California jurisdiction in the same manner as drunk driving.

Driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) laws holds a person criminally liable if he/she operates a vehicle while under the influence of drugs. In most jurisdictions, driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) is not uncommon and usually goes with laws on DUI/DWI.

It should be noted, however, that this defense will only be effective under certain circumstances for the reason that it is not without its weaknesses. Weakness of this type of defense comes from the fact that most people on these medications are warned of their side effects, including the possibility of sleep-driving; thereby turning a seemingly unconscious act into a voluntary one.

Commission of violation on DUI and its related laws are usually charged as a misdemeanor and first-time offense is made punishable by up to six months in county jail and fines in excess of $1,000.

Driving Under the Influence of Drugs

Driving under the influence of alcohol and driving under the influence of drugs are not uncommon in most jurisdictions. These laws are aimed at holding persons criminally liable when they operate a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Being “under the influence” as contemplated in these laws means that the person’s ability to drive has already been substantially impaired by reason of prior intake of any alcohol, drug, or any combination thereof.

In states like Illinois, Michigan, and Utah, operating a vehicle with any detectable amount of certain drugs in their system is a criminal act. Laws making it criminal are referred to as “per se” drugged driving laws

Criminal violations of a DUID law are usually charged as misdemeanors and are usually punishable by a jail term of up to six months, fines over $1,000, DUI probation, DUI school, and/or. Conviction under these penal statutes will also result in the suspension of driver’s license.

The Ambien Defense

Challenging a DUI charge seems to be a daunting task, but it’s not entirely impossible with the help of an experienced attorney. One of the more plausible defenses to DUID could be that you were unknowingly driving a car after taking in prescription or sleep medicine that causes a person to sleep drive. “Sleep drive”, as an effective tool for defense means that the person took a drug that put the person in a sleepwalking type of state and caused the person to get behind the wheel while sleeping.

Some of the more common prescription drugs considered as “sedative-hypnotic” sleeping medicines are Ambien (the generic form is called Zolpidem) Lunesta, Rozerem, Butisol sodium, Carbrital, and Prosom.

The “under the influence of Ambien” defense is similar to that being in the state of unconsciousness, which is a complete defense to criminal charges. It should be noted that this defense will only work in the defendant’s favor except when it is proven that he had voluntarily induced his/her unconsciousness.

This defense, however, is not without its limits because people on these drugs are usually made aware of their side effects, and that the drugs can cause people to sleep drive.

When being warned of its side-effects, it is as though the defendant had gone into a voluntary intoxication scenario – thereby making him/her criminally responsible for any form of DUID or driving under the influence of alcohol charge.

A defendant, during trial, may raise that he was never warned of its side-effect, especially of the fact that the drug could cause sleep-driving. However, raising such a point will lose its significance for the reason that the label on Ambien warns of the dangers of driving on the sleep aid.

The warning label usually states “Go to bed at least 7 to 8 hours. Do not drive until fully awake.” Take note that this label is mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Side effects of Ambien, a drug manufactured by Sanofi Aventis, include drowsiness, dizziness, weakness, and lightheadedness.

In preparing for DUI trial, defendant must disclose all facts relevant to his case including the fact of taking prescription drugs, and discuss the possibility of including the Ambien defense in challenging his DUI charges.

California DUID law: California Vehicle Code 23152f VC

As already discussed above, most jurisdictions make it a crime to operate a vehicle while being under the influence of a drug or alcohol or a combination thereof. In California jurisdiction, we have California Vehicle Code 23152f VC. This is the specific statute that defines and penalizes driving under the influence of drugs.

The code section applies to being under the influence of illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, legal drugs, such as marijuana, prescription medications (even if they do not make the user “high”), and over-the-counter medications (including sleeping pills and cold medicines).

The Ambien defense, however, has become difficult to use as a means of challenging DUID charges in California courts. In the case of People v. Mathson, defendant was charged with felony driving under the influence (sometimes referred to herein as DUI) (§ 23152, subd. (a)). Defendant admittedly took prescription Ambien while at home and fell asleep. He asserted that he was not criminally liable because he was sleep-driving and, therefore, unconscious during the incident.[1]

The court ultimately convicted him of the offense. In ruling in favor of his conviction, the court did not accept his sleep-driving defense. The court stated that "Voluntary intoxication is not a defense to driving under the influence of drugs. If you conclude that the defendant's state of intoxication was voluntary, then the defendant's state of consciousness or lack thereof shall not be considered as a defense to the crime. A person is voluntarily intoxicated if, one, the defendant willingly and knowingly ingested a substance, two, the substance was capable of producing an intoxicating event [sic], and three ... [t]he defendant knew the substance could produce an intoxicating effect."[2] [citations omitted]. In sum, the court rejected his sleep-driving defense since defendant was considered to be “voluntarily intoxicated.”

With the advent of People v. Mathson ruling, defendants cannot now conveniently assert that they have been under the influence of a prescription drug that led them to sleep-driving. This is especially true considering that FDA has mandated the warning requirements making users thereof aware of its side effects. Thus, the burden falls upon the defendant to prove that they were not aware of the risk of sleep-driving in order to counter the charges.


If you need assistance with a DUI charge, do not hesitate to contact us at (626) 827-7222 to schedule your free consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.


[1] People v. Mathson (2012) 210 Cal.App.4th at 1297.

[2] Same.

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