When most people think of driving under the influence (DUI), they automatically assume that the driver was drunk. However, DUI laws also apply to drivers who are under the influence of drugs, as well. Unlike a DUI for alcohol, though, there are no set standards for what constitutes inebriation. While per se rules for drunk drivers – like presumed intoxication for people with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or above – can be unfair, the utter lack of standards that apply to drugged drivers is even worse because it puts way too much discretion on the hands of police.
Driving Under the Influence of Drugs in California
Typically, DUI laws are just as important for what they do not say, as for what they explicitly prohibit: While they outlaw driving while under the influence, they are silent when it comes to describing a particular substance. As a result, DUI laws tend to prohibit the act of being under the influence of anything, if you are behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.
In California, though, Vehicle Code 23152(f) makes it explicit that drugged driving falls within the realm of DUI, as well. This section states: “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.”
Unlike the similar laws for drunk driving, though, Vehicle Code 23152(f) says no more. The relative vagueness of Vehicle Code 23152(f) is crucially important because it leaves the elements of the crime of drugged driving very broad.
Elements of Drugged Driving Under Vehicle Code 23152(f)
While Vehicle Code 23152(f) is not long, delving into each element of the crime can tease out some important points.
“Under the Influence”
Perhaps the most important aspect of Vehicle Code 23152(f) is in how poorly it defines what it means to be “under the influence” of a drug.
Criminal laws, like Vehicle Code 23152(f), are supposed to prohibit conduct that put others at significant risk, both to deter the conduct and punish those who do it. Vehicle Code 23152(f), however, fails to really outline what conduct it prohibits.
Unlike California's law against drunk driving, which uses BAC to judge whether a driver is intoxicated and prohibits driving with a BAC at or above 0.08%, Vehicle Code 23152(f) stays silent on what it means to be under the influence of drugs. Instead, it simply leaves it up to police to decide whether you are under the influence of a drug – an impossible task, even if the drug detection training that police officers go through is as good as law enforcement make it out to be.
What is a “Drug” DUI?
Another important aspect of Vehicle Code 23152(f) is that it prohibits being under the influence of a “drug,” but defines drugs in a way that could, in theory, include virtually every substance known to man. For the purposes of drugged driving in California, a drug is “a substance or combination of substances, other than alcohol, that could so affect the nervous system, brain, or muscles of a person that it would appreciably impair his or her ability to drive as an ordinarily cautious person, in full possession of his or her faculties and using reasonable care, would drive under similar circumstances.”
Infamously, this has permitted police to pull over and make a drugged driving arrest when the only drug the driver had in his system was coffee.
“Driving” a “Vehicle” in a California DUI
Finally, you can only be charged with drugged driving if you are driving a vehicle at the time.
While Vehicle Code 23152(f) only refers to a “vehicle,” not a “motor vehicle,” other portions of the Vehicle Code prohibit intoxicated driving on non-motorized vehicles, like bikes. This leaves Vehicle Code 23152(f) to deal with motor vehicles from cars to commercial vehicles like taxis, rideshares, and trucks.
The definition of “driving,” though is less certain. Cases in California have determined that “driving” means intentionally causing your vehicle to move. However, a police officer does not need to actually witness this happening, first hand. Instead, circumstantial evidence can be used to argue that you were driving at some point while under the influence of drugs.
Penalties for a Drugged Driving Conviction in California
In most cases, a conviction for a violation of Vehicle Code 23152(f) is a misdemeanor. However, there are circumstances that can lead to a felony charge for driving under the influence of drugs.
When it is pursued as a misdemeanor, the penalties for drugged driving are the same as for a conviction of drunk driving. For first time offenses that did not involve a car crash that produced injuries, these penalties include:
- Nearly $2,000 in fines and financial penalties
- A license suspension of at least six months
- Drug education class of at least three months
- Three to five years of probation
While jail time is possible – you can face up to six months in jail for a first offense of DUI – it is rarely imposed of first-time offenders.
A second offense for drugged driving carries the same fines, but the license suspension extends to two years, and a jail sentence – now ranging up to a year in duration – becomes mandatory. A third offense raises the minimum jail sentence to 120 days behind bars, lengthens the license suspension to three years, and increases the fines you would have to pay.
In some circumstances, though, a DUI for drugs can be pursued as a felony:
- When it is your fourth or subsequent DUI
- You have been convicted for a felony-level DUI before
- You were arrested for drugged driving after causing an accident that hurt someone else
If you are facing a felony DUI for drugged driving, the penalties you would face if convicted increase significantly: Up to four years in jail, $5,000 in fines, and five years of a license suspension.
Additionally, a conviction for driving under the influence of drugs would put a blemish on your criminal background, which can make it more difficult to get a loan, rent an apartment, or keep a job, especially in the transportation field: Even ridesharing companies like Lyft and Uber think twice about hiring someone with a DUI for drugs in their recent past.
Administrative and Criminal Penalties for DUIs
Importantly, the penalties that you can face for an instance of drugged driving come from two different branches of government: The judiciary hands out criminal penalties, while the executive branch, through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), hands out the license suspension and other driving sanctions.
The difference might not seem like much, but the practical consequences are significant. The DMV, because it gives you the right to drive, can take that right away with very little fanfare. In fact, one of the most shocking parts about a DUI incident is how quickly and easily the DMV rubber stamps an arrest and approves a license suspension. Those months without a license can completely change how you live, work, and make an income, but the decision to take it away can only take minutes.
A DUI for Drugs Can Lead to Other Charges
If you are pulled over and arrested for driving while under the influence of drugs, there is a substantial chance that you also get charged with other offenses, as well. After all, the police can search your car after making the arrest in many cases, so anything they find in the vehicle can be used against you for not just the DUI charge, but others, as well.
Some of the most common charges that come alongside one for driving under the influence of drugs are:
- Drug possession. If police find drugs either in your car or on your person during the traffic stop or arrest, you can face charges for drug possession. Depending on the amount found and the type of drug discovered, a conviction on this charge can come with heavy penalties on its own.
- Drug trafficking. Transporting illegal drugs can lead to a charge for drug trafficking. If police search your vehicle and discover drugs, you can be charged with trafficking, in addition to DUI.
- Driving while addicted to a drug. While rarely enforced, California does have a law that prohibits driving while addicted to a drug. This applies to people who are not even under the influence of a drug at the time of the arrest and are merely dependent on the drug in a vague sense.
- Vehicular manslaughter. If you caused a fatal accident, and the crash led to your arrest for drugged driving, you can face serious criminal charges for the crash, including vehicular manslaughter.
When these criminal charges stack up against you, having a skilled DUI-defense lawyer at your side to raise effective defenses becomes even more crucial.
Legal Defenses to DUI for Drugs
While getting arrested and charged for driving under the influence of drugs can be one of the most traumatizing and scary experiences you have, the story is far from over. There are numerous effective legal defenses that you can raise to prevent the charge from turning into a conviction and saddling you with fines, a license suspension, and the collateral consequences of having a criminal background.
Of course, the individual aspects of your case will determine which defenses are most likely to succeed.
Because there are no set standards for inebriation, like there are for drunk driving, drugged driving charges rely very heavily on the perceptions of the arresting officer. This becomes a tricky situation at trial because most of the case against you will be contained in the officer's testimony, where he or she will relate to the jury how they remember the arrest happening.
However, by the time your trial happens, it will often be several months since the arrest, leaving the officer's memory unreliable. This is especially the case for officers who make numerous arrests for DUI, and who have trouble differentiating one from the other. This is why so many arresting officers use statements that seem canned or standardized.
With that said, though, juries still trust the word of uniformed police officers when they take the stand. Overcoming the accusations they make while testifying and pointing out the inaccuracies in their memory can be difficult.
Unlawful Traffic Stop
Police officers need to have a reason to make a traffic stop, or else they could pull anyone over, whenever they wanted. If there was no indication that you were committing a crime, or had already committed a crime, at the time of the traffic stop, then the evidence obtained during the stop can be excluded from court, leaving the prosecutor with little to use against you.
Other Explanations for Symptoms
Prosecutors need to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, so raising a reasonable doubt as to whether you were really impaired by drugs – despite seeming so – can be an effective defense to a DUI drugs charge.
When the police list the reasons why they think you were drugged at the time of your arrest, pointing out all of the other possible explanations for your “symptoms” can raise enough of a doubt to prevent the prosecutor from getting the conviction they are looking for.
DUI-Defense Lawyer in Los Angeles
William S. Kroger is an experienced drug defense lawyer in Los Angeles. His experience includes representing people who have been arrested and accused of using drugs right before driving or using drugs while in the car.
William S. Kroger has successfully represented numerous clients facing a variety of drug and DUI charges in California. His experience can help you beat a charge of drugged driving, he knows how drug investigations work, and understands police and law enforcement tactics to get people convicted. Contact him online or call his Los Angeles law office at (323) 655-5700.