DUI: Not Just Alcohol Anymore

pittsburgh criminal defense attorneyDriving Under the Influence, or “DUI” as it is commonly called, is almost always associated with drinking alcohol, and although it is the most common form of DUI, it is not the only one.

With the legalization of marijuana in many states, we are also seeing an increasing amount of people charged with DUI for smoking marijuana and operating a motor vehicle.  And not just is states where it’s legal, either.

Here in Pennsylvania, being caught in possession of a small amount of marijuana has become a trivial matter for the courts– unless the charge occurs while driving.

Possession of a small amount, in and of itself, is considered a trivial matter, and is usually reduced to a “Disorderly Conduct” charge with a fine and court costs as punishment. A “DC” can be expunged from a persons record, and in any case, looks better on a persons record than a drug charge.

Drug convictions can come back to haunt people in searching for employment or getting a state certification, and can be used against someone in a child custody hearing. The “wink and a nod” approach of reducing the charges in a minor pot bust is an implicit acknowledgment that marijuana use, although still illegal, is not typically dangerous or a threat to public safety– unless the person charged is driving when it happens.

It is even worse if the person has a previous history of DUI for drinking as well. Even though there is no alcohol involved in a pot bust, a second DUI can be devastating to a person’s ability to earn a living and includes very stiff penalties, often including some time in jail. That’s a far cry from a disorderly conduct.

A third form of DUI is now increasingly being seen in courtrooms, that has nothing to do with illegal drugs or too much to drink. In many ways, it’s even scarier, because those charged literally think they are not breaking the law.

Many clients I have had for DUI cases say the same thing: “I wish I hadn’t had that last drink”. They recognize they acted irresponsibly in drinking alcohol and driving. They understand it was a bad decision they themselves made.

But what if they were simply following doctor’s orders?

Prescription drugs are increasingly showing up in DUI cases, and I don’t mean the Valiums or Quaalude (does anyone even do Quaalude anymore?). It’s not about otherwise ‘legal’ drugs someone illegally buys from the neighborhood drug dealer, either.

These are drugs legally prescribed by a physician. People feel that since it is ‘medicine’, prescribed by a doctor, there is nothing illegal happening, but that goes out the window when operating a motor vehicle.

“Do not operate heavy machinery while taking this prescription” does not just mean you can’t use a bulldozer today. An automobile qualifies as operating heavy machinery.

In fact, an automobile is over a ton of metal that can easily become a weapon in the wrong hands. If someone dies as a result of a DUI, it is not much different than shooting them. Even accidental shootings often result in criminal charges of neglect. It is the same for your car. If you use your gun or your car to intentionally kill someone, you will be charged with murder. If you do so unintentionally, you can still face severe charges such as manslaughter.

Perhaps Doctors need to be more explicit in making certain patients to whom they prescribe these medications understand the implications of taking a particular medication, and the legal liability of making irresponsible decisions when taking them. Maybe the warning labels should be more explicit and include a warning that driving a car while taking this medication can result in criminal charges, even if no one is injured.

As we approach the Memorial Day weekend, a holiday known for imbibing, lets all remember to practice some good old fashioned common sense and be aware that drinking and driving can lead to horrendous consequences.

Hopefully, doctors who prescribe these medications will begin doing the same for their patients.

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