Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Klonopin each fall under a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, controlled substances typically prescribed to address anxiety. They, like other drugs meant to treat mental conditions, can also be abused.
While popular and successful for the treatment of anxiety among other disorders, these medications are known to have an effect of impairing one’s ability to safely drive a motor vehicle, and are frequently stolen, sold, and abused. Benzodiazepines can affect the body in ways that make operating a vehicle difficult:
- Sedation: these drugs induce drowsiness, slowing the reaction time of those currently taking them. They can cause you to feel and act “asleep on your feet.”
- Blurred vision: A possible side effect of benzodiazepines, blurred or even double vision runs the risk of impairing a driver’s ability to see the road clearly.
- Muscle relaxation: The most desired effect for those prescribed and those who abuse, the central nervous system is affected, slowing reaction time.
Everyone has a different tolerance when it comes to substances. While some may not feel drowsy behind the wheel at all, others may insist the same but act in total opposition. In a study involving controlled driving tests, even subjects who had as little as 1 milligram of Xanax in their system could feel too drowsy to continue.
What constitutes “under the influence”?
The question for our Jacksonville criminal defense attorneys in these cases is whether a person is in fact “under the influence,” as defined in F.S. 316.193. While a person can be under the influence of alcohol for crossing the threshold of more than 0.08 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, determining impairment based on drug use is a bit more subjective.
The statute holds that a person who is in actual physical control of a vehicle and who is under the influence of any chemical substance to the extent his or her normal faculties are impaired can be found guilty of DUI.
In cases where someone is seriously injured or killed as a result of that impaired driver’s actions, he or she could be facing more serious charges, such as a second or third degree felony, with maximum penalties ranging from between 5 and 15 years. One can even be charged with a first degree felony if someone died and the defendant fled the scene.
Recently in South Florida, ABC-7 reported an 18-year-old was charged with DUI manslaughter, a second degree felony, after she allegedly sped through a stop sign and slammed into another car, killing a 19-year-old passenger and injuring several others. Authorities charged her with DUI manslaughter and DUI seriously bodily injury after she tested positive for several substances, including alprazolam (Xanax), cocaine and marijuana.
But as our Jacksonville DUI defense lawyers can explain, merely testing positive for these substances is not necessarily enough to prove impairment. That’s because drugs are not metabolized by the human body in the same way alcohol is. While alcohol cycles through the blood stream rapidly, meaning traces of it are a good indication of impairment, the same is not true for many drugs, including benzodiazepines.
There have been numerous studies outlining this disconnect. For example, a 2013 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews showed that the presence of certain concentrations of benzodiazepines in one’s bloodstream was not necessarily correlative of the degree of driver impairment. This was even though study authors made it clear that benzodiazepines such as Xanax and the others are known to have the potential to significantly impair driving performance.
In other words, just the presence of these drugs in one’s system alone isn’t enough to prove impairment under the Florida DUI statute. There must be other forms of evidence, typically from officer observations.
An increasing number of police agencies are turning toward drug recognition experts, police officers who are specially-trained to identify drug impairment of drivers. This advanced training makes them credible witnesses in a criminal trial, but that doesn’t mean their methods are without error.
Our experienced criminal defense attorneys in Jacksonville will help you determine the best to maximize your shot at beating these charges – or at least minimizing them. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.