Driving Under the Influence of Drugs
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.
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.
- Drug Possession: The police will search both you and your vehicle after your DUI arrest. If they find any further drugs, then you will also face charges for that possession. The type and severity of your charges will depend on both the type and amount of drug found, and could bring very serious penalties if you are convicted.
- Drug Trafficking: Similarly, if the police discover drugs in your vehicle, especially large quantities, you can face charges for drug trafficking. While a larger amount of drugs will lead to heavier penalties, you can face trafficking charges for even small amounts of drugs. The potential penalties vary depending on the type and amount of drug found.
- 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.
- Other charges related to causing harm: Often, people are caught and charged with a DUI because they were driving erratically and caused an accident. If this is the case, you can be charged with a number of potential offenses, including vehicular manslaughter if the accident was fatal to another person.