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How Prescription Medications Impact Operation of a Motor Vehicle

How Prescription Medications Impact Operation of a Motor Vehicle

Many people - of all ages - are treated by a doctor and prescribed some form of medication to address a medical issue. In most instances, medication is prescribed to bring a person to a normalized state. This can be said of classes of painkillers prescribed to alleviate chronic or acute pain, brought on by surgery, injury or various syndromes and diseases. This can also include classes of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, prescribed to bring about a more balanced affect and alleviate suffering in a person with depression, anxiety, PTSD and more.

Generally, a person that is properly medicated is in a normalized state. A properly medicated person is often a better driver than they would be without the balancing effect of their medicine. Moreover, a prescription is a license to take the medication as directed. However, the presence of medication in one’s system can be construed by law enforcement as a contributing factor to negligence or impairment. Oftentimes when police stop a driver whom they suspect to be operating under the influence, the police ask the driver whether they take any medications. The mere fact that the driver answers “yes” to this question may cause the police to continue their investigation and potentially charge the driver with operating under the influence of a drug.

OUI-Drugs charges are generally very difficult for a prosecutor to prove and likely require the prosecution to present expert testimony. In many instances, without proper expert testimony, the prosecutor will be unable to meet their burden of proof. For instance, Massachusetts law states that the mere presence of a substance in a defendant’s blood is not sufficient evidence to find a defendant is under the influence. Commonwealth v. Shellenberger, 64 Mass. App. Ct. 70 (2005). Moreover, for evidence of the presence of a substance to be admissible, there must be reliable evidence as to the amount or concentration of a substance in the defendant’s blood. Even then, expert testimony is required to provide evidence that the concentration of a particular drug in the defendant’s system would impair their ability to drive. Id. When prescription medication is involved, it becomes even more difficult for a prosecutor to prove that the drug in the defendant’s system has caused impairment, since it is prescribed by a medical doctor and intended to create a normalized state.

If the medication did in fact cause impairment, but there was no way that the defendant could have known that the medication would affect them in that way, there remains a strong defense against the charge of operating under the influence. In Massachusetts, if one is charged with OUI, but was only influenced by prescription medication, they may claim involuntary intoxication. Specifically, they may request a Wallace instruction, which provides “that the defendant is entitled to an acquittal if her intoxication was caused solely by her prescription medication, taken as prescribed, and she did not know or have ‘reason to know of the possible effects of the drug on [her] driving abilities.’” Commonwealth v. Bishop, 78 Mass. App. Ct. 70, 75 (2010) quoting Commonwealth v. Wallace, 14 Mass. App. Ct. 358, 365 (1982).

However, if the defendant had reason to know of the intoxicating effects of the drugs they were prescribed, they will not be able to avail themselves of the Wallace instruction. Commonwealth v. Reynolds, 67 Mass. App. Ct. 215 (2006). The defendant can be deemed to have knowledge if the prescription bottles have warnings not to drive when on the medication, the prescribing physician warns the defendant not to drive when on the medication, or if the defendant has previous experience taking the prescribed medication and knows of its effects from her previous consumption of that medication. Id. at 223. Furthermore, the consumption of alcohol can negate the availability of a Wallace instruction. When there is evidence that the defendant consumed alcohol in combination with prescription medication, the judge may instruct the jury to find that the defendant was intoxicated if they think that the alcohol contributed to the defendant’s intoxication. Commonwealth v. Bishop. The courts have held that this type of instruction is permissible because it is well known that alcohol and prescription medications, in combination, have a highly intoxicating effect.

There are some medications with side effects that could impair driving, but this does not mean that every person taking that medication is impaired. Age, weight, tolerance and dosage are all factors the court must consider, and you need a knowledgeable attorney who can argue the effect of these factors. If you are medically cleared to drive, and you are taking your prescription medications as prescribed by your doctor, then you may have a strong defense against the charge of operating under the influence.

Attorneys Who Defend with Science and Renowned Experts

If you are charged with an OUI for driving on prescription medications, you need not only an experienced attorney with a deep understanding of science and the law, but an attorney who is willing to work with experts and medical professionals to provide you with a strong defense. The Law Offices of Joseph D. Bernard prides itself on not only providing aggressive defense based on the law, but on advocating for our clients with the most up-to-date scientific knowledge available. Understanding the impact and interplay of drugs and alcohol on the body is critical to mounting an effective defense.

If you were charged with an OUI as a result of taking a prescription medication, call the Law Offices of Joseph D. Bernard for a free consultation today.

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