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DUI Defense of Sleepdriving Caused by Alcohol and Ambien

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Can alcohol and Ambien actually be a DUI defense? In a recent case titled People v. Mathson, the Court considered a fact pattern involving a DUI defendant who, under the influence of a prescription drug, Ambien (also known as zolpidem), engaged in a complex automatic behavior while asleep—sleepdriving.

In the Mathson case, the trial Court gave modified versions of the standard jury instructions approved by California’s Judicial Council with regard to the issues of unconsciousness and involuntary intoxication, which are both affirmative defenses to crimes which, if proved, allow the jury to acquit a DUI defendant.

Under California’s Penal Code, persons who commit an act without being conscious of it are not capable of committing a crime. The Judicial Council’s jury instruction on unconsciousness, which reflects the provisions of the Penal Code, contains language related to “sleepwalking.” Sleepwalking is a reasonably common symptom of Ambien usage, so common, in fact, that the FDA has required Ambien’s makers to accompany it with labels that specifically warn of the risk of sleepdriving.

In Mathson, the trial court modified the unconsciousness jury instruction to omit the language related to sleepwalking, and instead instructed the jury that involuntary intoxication was the only thing that could cause unconsciousness. The trial court’s reason for modifying the jury instruction may have related to concerns about how voluntary intoxication, even if it causes unconsciousness, does not provide a ground for the jury to acquit a defendant of DUI charges.

A person can be involuntarily intoxicated as a result of prescription drug usage, if the person could not have reasonably anticipated the intoxicating effects of ingesting the prescription drug. Prosecutors in Ambien cases are likely to argue that defendants have reason to anticipate the sleepwalking side effects that it causes because of the warning labels provided with the drug. However, a good defense attorney might be able to make a case for the proposition that even if the drug was accompanied by written materials warning of the risk of sleepdriving, a defendant might not have been able to reasonably anticipate that ingesting the product would cause sleepdriving. We all know that drugs are accompanied by literature that warns of a wide variety of side effects. For example, the drug Embrel is accompanied by literature advising that taking the pill may cause cancer. Does the presence of this warning mean that an Embrel user can reasonably anticipate that s/he will get cancer by ingesting Embrel?

There are plenty of circumstances under which a person takes an Ambien, lays down in bed, and later finds him or herself engaging in a complex automatic behavior such as eating or drinking or sleepdriving in the middle of the night. Under such circumstances, a persuasive Defense attorney may be able to use the California Judicial Council’s Pattern Jury Instructions, or modified variants thereof, to set up a situation where the Jury has been provided with clear reasons to vote to acquit the defendant. The DUI Defense lawyers at Beck Law, P.C. are able to apply these skillful defense tactics to your case if warranted by the fact pattern in Sonoma County, Mendocino County or Lake County. Contact us for a consultation if you would like to explore the options for obtaining an acquittal of your DUI charges.

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