Fighting a DUI Charge Involving Benzodiazepines

May 22, 2017

Fighting a DUI Charge Involving Benzodiazepines

Recently, a 52-year-old Pennsylvania man was charged with murder for his alleged role in the motor vehicle death of a 22-year-old college student and star soccer player just days before Christmas.

Authorities reported to the that defendant was under the influence of numerous drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and benzodiazepines at the time of the fatal crash. Investigators say the driver was careening down a 25 mph road at speeds in excess of 80 mph and struck the college student’s vehicle, sending her crashing into two nearby parked cars, over a fence, and into a nearby yard. They say the driver allegedly under the influence never braked before or after impact. The young woman was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead.

Driving under the influence of benzodiazepines isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Drugs like Xanax have been around for decades. However, drug enforcement officials say they are increasingly being misused and abused, in some cases by individuals who get behind the wheel of a car. This is a legitimate concern, and keeping the roads safe is a priority.

However, our criminal defense attorneys in Scranton know that such medications are usually legitimately prescribed, and the determination of a person being “under the influence” can be subjective. Given that the consequences for DUI conviction are so severe, particularly if someone is seriously injured or killed, it’s imperative that those accused promptly seek legal counsel.

With alcohol, there is a widely accepted scientific method of identifying impairment. If one has a blood-alcohol concentration of higher than 0.08, he or she is deemed impaired. However, it doesn’t correlate the same way with drugs because different substances affect people differently. Also, drugs are often processed in one’s system much more slowly than alcohol, which means traces of the substance in one’s system is not necessarily indicative of intoxication.

One of the many studies to note this conclusion was the 2013 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews. Study authors noted that the use of benzos can significantly impair driving performance, so they sought to ascertain if there was a relationship between blood concentrations of these medications and the degree of driver impairment. They reviewed 24 studies and concluded that while the drug concentration in one’s blood sometimes correlates with impairment, individual differences in blood drug concentrations and driver performance were significant. In other words: There is little to no correlation between one’s blood-alcohol concentration and driver performance.

Legislators thus far have largely recognized this too, which is why there is no set concentration of these drugs that set the legal standard for impairment.

However, that does not mean you cannot be arrested for DUI involving a benzo. It just means police and prosecutors must rely more heavily on circumstantial evidence and the subjective observations of responding officers. That can create opportunities for our DUI defense lawyers to challenge these assertions.

Increasingly, many police departments have been investing in drug recognition experts, or DREs, which are specially-trained officers who are taught how to recognize drug-related impairment from benzodiazepines in motorists. They test both physical and cognitive function. However, it’s still not an exact science.

Some of the tests conducted by DREs include:

  • Eye examination;
  • Muscle tone examination;
  • Search for injection sites;
  • Divided attention tests.

DREs will also interview the officer on the scene, as well as the subject. Both of these can lead to flawed conclusions. Your defense lawyer will seek to raise reasonable doubt about those conclusions.

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