New Jersey DWI Law Can Include Driving Under the Influence of Prescription Medications

Driving while intoxicated (DWI) can involve other substances besides alcohol. New Jersey’s DWI statute makes it an offense to drive while under the influence of a “narcotic” or “habit-producing drug.” It does not specify that the narcotic or other drug must be illegal or illicit. Certain prescription medications can significantly impair a person’s ability to perform various functions, including driving. Defending against this type of DWI charge often involves challenging the police’s determination of impairment. Even if a person legally possesses a prescription medication, and uses it exactly as instructed by their doctor, the state could still charge them with DWI. Last month, for example, New Jersey prosecutors charged a school bus driver with DWI after a minor accident in a parking lot, alleging that she was under the influence of prescription medications.

New Jersey law identifies a level of blood alcohol content (BAC) at which a person is presumed to be impaired. It does not identify specific levels of other substances. In order to prove that a defendant was under the influence of something other than alcohol, the state usually relies on eyewitness testimony about a defendant’s appearance and demeanor at the time of their arrest. Prosecutors may also offer expert testimony from officers known as “drug recognition experts,” who are purportedly trained in recognizing signs of impairment by various drugs.

Reported cases involving “prescription medication DWI” in New Jersey appear to be rare. Cases often involve combinations of substances. For example, the defendant in a 2015 New Jersey Appellate Division case, State v. Pouch-Mendola, was reportedly taking two prescription medications that acted as “central nervous system depressants.” According to the court, she admitted to “consuming alcohol to ‘enhance’ [the] effect” of the medications. The court affirmed her conviction.

New Jersey appellate courts have affirmed some DWI convictions that involved prescription medications, but no alcohol or other drugs. In State v. Ferreira, an Appellate Division decision from 2011, police testified that, although they detected no signs of alcohol, they suspected that the defendant “was under the influence of ‘something.’” The defendant told the officer that she was taking hydrocodone, an opioid painkiller, and Xanax, a benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety. At trial, the state called an expert witness to testify that hydrocodone and Xanax can cause “cognitive impairment.” In 2009, the Appellate Division affirmed a conviction in State v. Cirlin based on the defendant’s admission to taking Niravam, a prescription medication similar to Xanax.

The Appellate Division reversed a DWI conviction in 2011 in State v. Driscoll. The defendant had a prescription for Fioricet with codeine. A urine test showed that the defendant had both substances in her system. The defendant called her treating physician to testify that she suffered from “chronic intractable headaches” and Lyme disease. The physician also testified that he believed that symptoms of Lyme disease explained the defendant’s condition and behavior at the time of her arrest. The Law Division’s oral opinion stated that “reasonable doubt exists as [to] the [etiology] of the observed symptoms,” but the court still convicted her of DWI. The Appellate Division reversed the conviction based on the Law Division’s own words.

DWI attorney Evan Levow advocates for the rights of people facing alleged DWI charges in New Jersey municipal courts. He can guide you through the court process, help you understand your rights and options, and prepare the best possible defense for your case. Please contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our experienced and knowledgeable team.