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Can You Get a DUI While Using Prescription Drugs?

Often, when someone hears that a person has been charged with a DUI, they imagine that the driver was under the influence of alcohol or an illegal drug. But many people are surprised to learn that even taking a doctor-prescribed medication can result in criminal charges.

At May McKinney, we have seen a lot of DUI cases involving prescription drug use. Most of the time, the accused didn't know that what they were doing was illegal, as they were just following their doctor's orders. Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is not a defense in a criminal case. Thus, we've written this blog to help people understand Tennessee's DUI law and how using a legal prescription medicine can lead to criminal penalties.

How Driving Under the Influence Is Defined

A person can be charged with a DUI in TN when they have an alcohol concentration of .08% or more. This is often what people think about when they hear the term "DUI." But it's not the only way a person commits the offense.

The other way is by driving or being in physical control of a vehicle while under the influence of a substance that impairs the driver's ability to safely control their vehicle. Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-10-401 specifically states that a motorist is under the influence when they lack "the clearness of mind and control of oneself that the driver would otherwise possess."

The law also provides that it's an offense for anyone to drive while under the influence of:

  • Any intoxicant,
  • Marijuana,
  • Controlled substance,
  • Controlled substance analog,
  • Drug, or
  • Substance affecting the central nervous system.

You may notice that the statute does not distinguish between illegal or legal substances, nor does it provide an exception for any prescription medication. Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-10-411 explicitly states that taking a lawfully prescribed medication is not a defense to prosecution. However, that doesn't mean it's always illegal to drive after taking a prescription drug. If the substance does not affect the driver, and they can safely operate their car, they may not be arrested or charged.

Possible Side Effects of Prescription Medications

Certain medications are prescribed to abate symptoms of a health condition. While they can alleviate pain or discomfort or help with a mental health issue, they can also cause side effects that affect a person's motor ability and cognitive functions, which are needed to safely drive a vehicle.

Common side effects include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Shakiness
  • Poor concentration
  • Slow reaction time
  • Confusion

Because prescription medications can diminish driving ability, it's crucial that anyone taking them understand their effects by speaking with their doctor or pharmacist or reading the label. Getting behind the wheel while experiencing side effects can result in a DUI charge.

The Penalties for a Prescription Drug DUI

If a person is convicted of driving under the influence of a prescription medication, they could face the same penalties as someone found guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol or an illegal drug. For instance, if the defendant is convicted of their first offense, they could be sentenced to between 48 hours and 11 months, 29 days in jail and fined up to $1,100.

Evidence in a Prescription Medicine DUI Case

One of the differences between a prescription drug DUI and an alcohol DUI is that there is no set level of impairment for prescription drugs. Meaning law enforcement officials don't have a concrete number to look at when determining whether someone was under the influence. Typically, when alcohol is involved, they'll subject the driver to a breath or blood test to determine alcohol concentration levels, or even if drugs or alcohol were in the system. But a prescription drug might not show up in the results.

Although the same type of chemical analysis may not be accurate in determining whether a driver was affected by medication, the State won't necessarily drop the charge. Other evidence may be used to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual was impaired. For instance, the arresting officer may testify about the defendant's driving behavior or their physical appearance at the time of the stop.

Because prescription DUI matters are so intricate, anyone charged with the offense would benefit from speaking with a knowledgeable attorney about their case and defenses that may be available.

At May McKinney, we have nearly 80 years of combined experience and know the nuances of Tennessee's DUI laws. We can provide the aggressive defense you need in Nashville. Call us at (615) 265-6383 or contact us online today.