Prescription drug use is common in the United States to treat all kinds of diseases, medical issues, or pain. What many people do not know about DWI charges and prescription drugs is that even if you are lawfully in possession of a prescription drug and are taking it as prescribed, you can still be charged with a DWI if the prescription drug affects your ability to drive.
Texas Drug DWI Laws
Intoxication is defined by Texas Penal Code § 49.01 (2)(A) as “not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into the body,” or having an alcohol concentration level of 0.08 or above.
Many prescription drugs are dispensed with warnings stating that you should avoid driving a vehicle due to side effects caused by the medication. To prove a DWI case in court, the prosecution must prove not only that you had taken a medication but also that you did not have normal use of your mental or physical faculties due to ingestion of the drug. Some medications can cause impairment that can make driving unsafe even if they are taken exactly as prescribed.
Drug Examinations in Texas DWIs
If police suspect that you are driving while under the influence of a prescription medication, they may request that you be examined by a certified drug recognition expert, or “DRE.” A DRE examination goes beyond the standard field sobriety tests and is designed to detect whether or not a person may be under the influence of a substance other than alcohol. A DRE exam consists of the following 12 steps:
- A breath alcohol test
- Interview with the arresting officer
- Preliminary examination and first pulse check
- Eye examination
- Divided attention psychological tests
- Exam of blood pressure, temperature, and second pulse check
- Dark room examinations
- Examination for muscle tone
- Check for injection sites and third pulse check
- Subject's statements and other observations
- Analysis and opinions of the evaluator
- Toxicological evaluation
A DRE exam is not performed in all DWI drug cases. DRE recognition has not been studied scientifically on the same level that standard field sobriety tests have been on subjects impaired by alcohol, and these exams can be inaccurate for determining impairment. If your case involves a DRE exam, the validity of this exam may be challenged in court, especially if the DRE failed to conduct all 12 steps of the examination.
If you are questioned by law enforcement about whether you have taken any prescription medications during a traffic stop, it is important to remember that you have a right to remain silent and avoid incriminating yourself—you do not have to answer any questions about what prescription medications you have taken.
Penalties and Related Offenses for Drug DWIs
Penalties for a prescription drug DWI are the same as those for driving while intoxicated by alcohol. The penalty ranges are as follows:
- First Offense – 3 to 180 days jail, up to a $2,000 fine, and license suspension for up to one year
- Second Offense- 30 days to 180 days jail, up to a $4,000 fine, and license suspension for 180 days to 2 years
- Third or Subsequent Offense – 2 to 10 years in a Texas state correctional facility, up to a $10,000 fine, and license suspension for 180 days to 2 years
Prescription drug DWI cases often involve the following related offenses:
Refusal to Submit to a Chemical Test
Police may request that you submit to a chemical test of your breath, blood or urine. If you refuse to submit to a chemical test, you may lose your driving privileges pursuant to implied consent laws which require you to submit to chemical testing of your breath, blood or urine if you are driving on roadways within the state and a law enforcement officer suspects that you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Possession of a Controlled Substance
If you are arrested for a DWI charge, police may conduct a search of your person and may conduct an inventory search of your vehicle. If prescription drugs are found in the vehicle that you were not lawfully entitled to possess, you may be charged with possession of a controlled substance in addition to driving while intoxicated.
It is important to always keep prescription medications in the container they were dispensed in since failure to do so can result in you being arrested for suspicion of possession of a controlled substance.
Defenses for Prescription Drug DWIs
There are a number of possible defenses to charges of prescription drug DWIs in Texas. Talk to your DWI defense lawyer about the best way to fight criminal charges in your case. Possible defenses in a DWI drug case may include:
Lack of Evidence
The state has the burden of proving every element of a DWI including that you were driving and that your mental or physical abilities were impaired due to the influence of a drug, alcohol, or controlled substance. Many cases can be challenged if police failed to follow proper procedures for field sobriety testing, DRE exams, and chemical testing.
Lack of Reasonable Suspicion
Police must have a valid reason to pull you over, for a traffic offense such as speeding, swerving outside your lane of traffic, or driving the wrong way. If police lacked reasonable suspicion that you were committing a traffic offense, any evidence of intoxication found after the traffic stop may be suppressed because the traffic stop was unlawful.
Lack of Probable Cause
Police may not arrest you unless there is sufficient evidence that you have committed a crime, although it is important to keep in mind that you can be arrested for even a minor offense that was committed in an officer's presence. If police lacked probable cause to arrest you, evidence of intoxication found after the arrest may be suppressed which can result in dismissal of your case.
Voluntary intoxication is not a defense to a crime in Texas. However, if there is evidence that you were given a prescription drug without your knowledge or consent, you may be able to allege involuntary intoxication as a defense to a DWI charge.