As a lawyer, I never know who’s going to walk in my door.
And if you take Ambien, you never know when you’re going to walk right out of your own door, into your car, and find yourself “waking up” in the drunk tank.
I’ve seen a handful of these cases in recent months; clients who took an Ambien at night (or other sleep aids that are part of a class of drugs called sedatives or hypnotics), got themselves tucked in and under the covers, and then, without even realizing they were doing it, got in their car and took off.
Dangerous? You bet. Criminal? Nope. But if you’re pulled over, it’s a motor vehicle offense and you can – and probably will – be charged with driving under the influence.
New Jersey, unlike many states, does not treat DUI as a criminal offense. The upside? You won’t have a criminal record if you’re found guilty. The downside? You lose some constitutional privileges, like a jury trial.
And let’s face it – if you took an Ambien as prescribed and then, completely unbeknownst to your conscious brain, got in the car, drove erratically and was pulled over, many juries would probably lend a sympathetic ear.
The dangers of Ambien and DUI
But in New Jersey, you wouldn’t have that opportunity. In New Jersey, the best you can hope for is a sympathetic judge. And even then, there might be little that judge could do.
In order to prove driving under influence, two simple questions are asked: 1) Were you driving? and 2) Were you under the influence? For the most part “intent” part of the equation.
It’s not just sleep aids that can get you in trouble; I’ve had cases where patients took painkillers as prescribed, but the effect – sometimes mixed with as little as one drink – was intoxicating. Were they driving? Yes. Were they under the influence? Yes. Did they mean to be? No. Did it matter? No.
But at least with the painkillers, the people knew they were getting in the car. With the Ambien cases, they didn’t know until they woke up in custody.
Is there relief on the way? Not in the legislature. No pending bills seeking to separate out intent when it comes to DUI offenses. From a legal perspective, intent carries weight in many criminal cases, but again – in New Jersey, DUI is not a criminal offense.
So Ambien users – maybe it’s a prudent idea to give up your keys before you turn in for the night so you don’t accidentally walk out of your house and into your car. If you don’t, you just might find yourself walking through my doors the next day.