If you are arrested and charged with DUI in the state of California for driving while impaired by Ambien, you may not have any valid legal defense. If you drive under the influence of Ambien or any drug that can impair your ability to drive, having a prescription from your doctor will not help you in court if you are prosecuted for DUI. Pharmaceutical products like Ambien can be just as dangerous as alcohol if you use them and get behind the wheel.
Ambien promises its users peaceful sleep in fifteen minutes, but it is also now being widely used by DUI defendants and other criminal suspects as a legal defense – the “Ambien Defense.” The argument is that an Ambien user’s judgment or personality can be impaired under the influence of the drug and that it can cause a person to commit crimes while “sleepwalking” or not entirely conscious. But does Ambien impair a person’s judgment enough to drive someone to violence?
Ambien was first introduced in 1992. At that time, there was no talk of any side effects linked to crime or to violence. Rather, the concerns about Ambien focused on the inability of many users to shake off the effects of the drug after a full night’s sleep. Ambien users are potentially dangerous drivers in the mornings. According to Todd Landgren, a prominent Orange County DUI attorney, prescription drugs like Ambien are now “the new and upcoming aspect of drunk driving, because more people are getting arrested for prescription medications.”
IS AMBIEN RESPONSIBLE FOR VIOLENCE?
One of the most recent and most tragic instances of the Ambien defense arose after the events of April 2014 at the Fort Hood military base near Killeen, Texas, when Army Specialist Ivan Lopez shot three people dead and injured sixteen others on the base before turning the gun on himself. According to military investigators, Lopez may have been using Ambien prior to his shooting rampage.
Other violent incidents linked to the possible use of Ambien include the Carthage, North Carolina murders of eight people in 2009 by 45-year-old Robert Stewart, and the case of Derek Stansberry, who told a flight crew that he was carrying explosives on a plane in 2010. Stewart was found guilty of eight counts of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to 142 years to 179-and-a-half years in prison. Stansberry was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Dr. Cheryl Paradis, a professor of forensic psychology at Marymount Manhattan College and an expert on Ambien, thinks it’s not likely that the drug is responsible for violent behavior. “You have to remember, it is the most commonly used sleep aid in the U.S., but reported cases of violence have been very rare,” she said. “It is most likely Ambien is not causing this behavior. It’s just that people who are already having psychological problems are using Ambien. Most people who are committing these kinds of crime are mentally ill,” Dr. Paradis said. “Most of them are depressed; depressed people have trouble sleeping.”
Notably, and despite Army Specialist Lopez’s reported use of Ambien, “His behavior does not sound like the type of behavior described in Ambien-related events,” said Dr. Paradis. “Those are events where people are confused, they go to sleep at night, they wake up, and they are in an altered state. They come downstairs in the morning and they find all the food is out of the refrigerator.”
Sanofi, the original manufacturers of Ambien, says the information it provides to doctors and patients explains that “visual and auditory hallucinations, abnormal thinking, and behavior changes have been reported, including aggressiveness and out-of-character extroversion, bizarre behavior, agitation, and depersonalization have been reported.” However, Sanofi adds that there is no other data on whether additional influences such as underlying psychiatric or physical illness played a role in those incidents.
HOW IS AMBIEN REGULATED?
The world’s drug regulators are keeping an eye on Ambien. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency have recently asked manufacturers to change the product label so that the impaired driving risk is more strongly emphasized. Neither agency, however, is requiring Ambien manufacturers to mention any risk of patients developing violent tendencies.
In another recent and highly publicized case, Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy and niece of JFK, was found not guilty of drugged driving in New York in 2014. Ms. Kennedy said she mistook Ambien for her thyroid medication, and the 54-year-old former wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was charged with driving while impaired after swerving off the highway in her Lexus SUV and careening into a tractor-trailer.
Ms. Kennedy testified that she grabbed the wrong prescription bottle from her kitchen counter that morning and swallowed 10 milligrams of Ambien by mistake. Her use of the Ambien defense was successful, but that’s rare. “It is very rarely used as a defense, and very rarely effective,” said Dr. Paradis, who added that in the Kennedy case, “no one was hurt, that’s important. It is more likely to be successful when it is something like that, in a minor traffic violation.”
If you use any over-the-counter or prescription medicine, read the warning labels and directions carefully. If you use any medicine that could impair your ability to drive, then it’s better not to drive at all. Do not let your prescription for Ambien or any other medication cause you to be charged with driving under the influence. A DUI conviction can mean fines, probation, a driver’s license suspension, and maybe even time in jail.
HOW CAN YOU LEARN MORE?
Any driver who is charged with DUI in Southern California because of Ambien will need to retain legal counsel and discuss the case with an experienced Orange County DUI attorney. And always be careful with prescription and even over-the-counter drugs like Ambien, Ativan, Vicodin, and Sudafed. If you’re driving, these medicines can pose just as much risk to you and everyone around you as alcohol. You can always learn more about these medicines by speaking with your doctor or by going online, and you can learn more about prescription drugs and DUI by consulting an experienced DUI attorney.