Drugs don’t have to be illegal to result in DWI charges in Minnesota. Although the consumption of medications that can be purchased over the counter or prescribed by a physician is not against the law, many of these types of drugs can cause significant side effects that can impair a person’s ability to safely, and legally operate a motor vehicle. When a driver becomes impaired due to the effects of legal medications, he or she can be arrested and charged with DWI in the same manner that a drunk or illegally drugged driver can.
The Elements of a Typical DWI in Minnesota
In Minnesota, a person can be found guilty of a DWI when:
- The individual operated a motor vehicle, and
- At the same time, the person was under the influence of any drug, alcohol or combination of such that impaired his or her ability to drive safely.
Under the Influence of Medication
Many types of prescription medications and over the counter substances can impact an individual’s mental and physical abilities. Cold medicines, sleep aids, cough syrups, painkillers, muscle relaxers, mental health medications and other behavior modifying substances are products that commonly produce side effects. In some cases, these side effects can linger for an extended period of time. And when other medications or alcohol are consumed as well, the effects can be intensified.
In Minnesota, a zero tolerance law is observed. This means that drivers are prohibited from operating a motor vehicle when any amount even a trace) of narcotics or other specified drugs are in their systems. In a study reported in 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed that although drunk driving has decreased significantly in recent years, drugged driving continues to escalate. According to the report, about 16 percent of nighttime drivers have some type of impairing drug (either illegal substances, prescription medications or over the counter medicines) in their systems.
Side Effects that Can Impair a Person’s Ability to Drive
Although it is recommended that individuals refrain from operating motor vehicles when taking new drugs or new doses of medications until they see how the medications react with their bodies, many drivers tend to throw caution to the wind. In addition to reading warning labels, speak to their prescribing physicians and pharmacists, and watch for common symptoms that may indicate that their driving abilities could be impaired. A few side effects that can indicate that driving should be avoided include:
- Dizziness or fainting
- Drowsiness or extreme fatigue
- Confusion or the inability to focus or pay attention
- Delayed reactions, poor coordination or slowed movement
- Blurred vision
- Slowed or slurred speech
When alertness, judgment, motor skills or concentration are affected by the consumption of medications, individuals should steer clear of motor vehicle operation until symptoms cease.
Evaluating a Driver’s Behavior
While it can sometimes be difficult for law enforcement officials to identify and assess a driver’s level of impairment, there are common indicators that can lead to further investigation and possibly even arrest. These include:
- Performing reckless maneuvers like passing without allowing adequate distance between vehicles, taking curves or turns at high speeds, or stopping or starting too quickly
- Weaving within a lane for failing to maintain a single lane
- Driving the wrong direction on a one-way street
- Exhibiting slow reactions to road hazards
- Failing to observe traffic signals and street signs
When a Driver Has Legal Drugs in His or Her System
Although many states are putting law enforcement officials through special training to help them identify the signs of drug impairment and are hoping for better technology that offers enhanced detection, at this time there is no accurate system to determine when a driver’s actions are a result of medical impairment. Because of this, convicting individuals of driving while impaired by drugs is often more difficult than convicting someone who is legally drunk. Unfortunately, these challenges also mean that many individuals who are not actually impaired by the consumption of prescription or over the counter medications suffer the consequences of a DWI conviction. In Minnesota, a DWI attorney might use a variety of defenses to help defendants avoid being convicted of driving while impaired. Some of them include:
- Rebutting the possible side effects of legally consumed medications
- Denying the driver’s knowledge of possible impairment when warning labels are not present
- Disputing the driver’s level of impairment, especially when the medication was taken hours or even a day or so prior to the charge
The Consequences of Driving Under the Influence of Legal Drugs
In Minnesota, an individual who is convicted of driving under the influence of legal drugs faces the same penalties as someone who is guilty of driving while impaired by alcohol or illegal substances. In addition to possible jail time, those convicted can face significant fines and may even lose their driving privileges.