Can I Receive a Missouri DWI for Driving While Taking Prescription Drugs?
The short answer is yes. However, the process differs from an alcohol-related DWI. A different level of analysis will go into a DWI conviction for prescription drugs than will a normal alcohol DWI offense. Officers must decide if the driver is impaired by illicit drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol, or a combination. Impaired driving is defined as when a person’s faculties are so reduced so that the ability to see, hear, walk, talk, and judge distances are below the normal levels. Evidence of impaired driving, whether by cause of alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription drugs, will most often lead to a DWI charge.
Police departments have begun utilizing what is called drug recognition experts, or DREs, to determine whether someone is impaired by medications. Missouri courts have consistently held these officers are not experts, but just have additional training regarding the process of determining drug intoxication. The analysis is based upon a 12-step system referred to as the DRE protocol. At the end of the 12 steps, the DRE will decide whether the driver is impaired and by what drug.
THE DRE PROCESS
If the officer arrests you over for suspicion of DWI while under the influence of drugs, the first step of the DRE is to conduct a breathalyzer to eliminate the possibility of intoxication by alcohol. Next, the officer will interview you, which mostly takes the form of questioning you about your behaviors and driving, as well as attempting to locate any visible paraphernalia. Then, the officer will attempt to eliminate any possible health concerns or injuries which may have resulted in erratic or suspicious driving. The officer will also question you about prescribed medications.
The fourth step is for the officer to conduct eye tests to determine if you have signs of impairment. There are three eye tests that are performed; HGN, lack of convergence, and pupil dilation. The horizontal gaze nystagmus test, or HGN, is a standardized test to check for the involuntary jerking of the eye while filing a stimulus. Lack of convergence test is the ability for both eyes to converge on a single point. Pupil dilation can be an indicator of impairment based on reaction to light and size.
After this is completed, the officer will conduct standardized field sobriety tests, which include the walk and turn test and the one-leg stand test. These tests are often described as divided attention tests, so they analyze how well a person can maintain focus and follow directions. If these tests are not instructed properly, then the results will likely not hold up as valid evidence of impairment. However, this will be for your attorney to contest during court hearings. At this point, it is important not to argue with the officer as they can use this behavior against you as evidence of impairment. It is important to note, you are never required to take a test and can at anytime request to speak to an attorney.
The next three steps are for the officer to conduct your vital signs, your pupil dilation another time, and your muscle tone. All three of these factors can be influenced by the use of prescription drugs, especially if there is overuse. For one, your heart rate or blood pressure can be abnormal depending upon medication usage. Further, muscle tone can be overly rigid or unusually flaccid depending upon the type of drug ingested into the system. All these factors, even though they are beyond your control, can be used against you as evidence of impairment.
Next, the officer will further question the suspect of drug use. Then the officer will use the drug symptom matrix to decide impairment and attempt to classify the potential drugs that the suspect may be using, prescription or not. The officer makes this determination based upon a totality of the circumstances and tests, which include the HGN, VGN, lack of eye convergence, pupil size, reaction to light, pulse rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. The presence, or abnormalities, of these factors, will line up with either a depressant, inhalant, cannabis, stimulants, hallucinogens and narcotic analgesics. The final step is to have the driver submit to a urine, blood, or saliva test for a toxicology lab analysis which would show the presence of drugs. The resulting test can and will be used as evidence to support the DRE’s opinion of impairment.
HOW TO AVOID A DWI CONVICTION FOR PRESCRIPTION DRUGS
The first step to avoiding a DWI conviction for prescription drugs is to be familiar with how the drug will affect you. Even taking the prescribed amount can affect you in such a way that impairs your driving and can put you at risk of a DWI. Thus, if you do not know how the drug will affect you, ask your doctor before ever driving, or make certain that you have experience with the drug before ever getting behind a wheel.
Secondly, do not take more than the prescribed amount. Even if you feel comfortable with the drug, the officer will use evidence of overconsumption as an indicator of impairment. Thirdly, never mix your prescribed medication with alcohol, illegal drugs, or other medication not prescribed by your doctor to be taken together. This sort of drug “cocktail” will certainly be easier for the officer to notice and analyze impairment.