The answer is: Yes, in Pennsylvania, if you are on prescription medication from your doctor for physical or mental ailments, and you drive, you can be charged with a DUI. This comes as a huge surprise to many of my clients, who think of DUIs as involving alcohol or maybe street drugs. Perhaps it isn’t publicized as well as it should be, but in Pennsylvania (and most other states), it’s illegal to drive with the presence of certain medications—some of which are very common medications—in your system. So, for example, if you are prescribed oxycodone or oxycontin for a legitimate pain condition—and you are taking it as prescribed by your doctor and not abusing it—if you drive, you could be charged with a DUI. The same is true for many other medications, including heart/blood pressure, anxiety, depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar, pain problems, immune disorders, and many others. Many of my clients upon being charged believe that it makes a difference that their doctor tells them they must take the medication long-term and that it helps the person function day-to-day and must therefore be defensible to drive on that basis. This is not so. However, because the law keeps changing in this area, there are actually a number of defenses or partial defenses in this category of DUIs to explore with your attorney.
Not only is it illegal to drive with certain medications in your system, but the penalties in Pennsylvania are tough—if you are charged with a DUI based on prescription drugs, your DUI will be in the highest tier—in the same category as the highest blood-alcohol tier. Consequently, this type of DUI carries mandatory jail sentences, heavy fines, and often long license suspensions.
I personally think that doctors are not doing their part when prescribing to patients to explain all this. Sometimes doctors or pharmacists might remind patients or highlight to them the label on a bottle which declares that taking the medicine and driving or operating machinery could be dangerous. But I rarely hear that doctors are explaining to their patients while prescribing these medications that the patient simply cannot drive at all while taking it. Perhaps doctors fear that the patient will end up not taking the drug as prescribed, or not take it all.
An experienced criminal DUI defense attorney will be looking at your case from all angles, and would certainly include whether there is an argument on at least the following: you weren’t impaired while driving, the legality of the stop, the DUI checkpoint didn’t meet proper legal standards, the reason offered by the police for stopping you can be proven as simply not true, the field sobriety tests administered on you were not done correctly, you were not in a good condition to perform field sobriety tests for some other reason (like sickness, lack of sleep allergies), the breath or other equipment was not calibrated properly, you were not the driver or you were not driving or otherwise in control of a motor vehicle (as required for a DUI), the police criminal complaint, affidavit of probable cause, or police reports contain inaccuracies.
The law has been evolving in this area of DUIs, so because the laws are always changing, even small changes could have a significant effect on your case. If you have a DUI of this type, it’s important to have on your side an experienced criminal defense attorney who handles many DUI cases. There are also many smaller issues with DUIs based on medications that the attorney can explore with you—including the levels of the drug in your system—that could affect whether the charges against you are valid or not. Bottom line: when looking to hiring a criminal defense attorney, as him or her specifically how many DUI TRIALS he or she has had—even if you don’t want to go to trial in your own case—this is the only measure you need to know whether you are getting an attorney experienced in this specific area of the law.