Arizona Appeals Court Upholds DUI Convictions for Prescription Drug Use Within the Therapeutic Range

An Arizona appeals court recently affirmed a defendant’s DUI convictions in a DUI case involving the use of prescription drugs, that the defendant claimed were used as prescribed. According to the evidence presented at trial, the defendant was driving down a two-lane road one evening while speeding and passing other vehicles. At some point, the defendant lost control while passing two cars, and crashed into two motorcycles. At the scene, an officer asked the defendant to submit to a blood draw, and he agreed. His blood tested positive for lorazepam and methadone. The level of both drugs in the defendant’s blood were within the therapeutic range.

Lorazepam is a prescription drug, often used to treat anxiety. It can impair driving, by making a driver drowsy and slowing the driver’s reaction time, even when taken as prescribed. The defendant testified that he was prescribed lorazepam, and had taken it two days before the crash. Methadone is a narcotic, generally used to treat heroin addiction. It also can cause sleepiness and can slow reaction time, even when taken within the therapeutic range. The defendant took a dose of methadone at a clinic on the morning of the crash. There is also evidence that the combination of the two drugs can also compound their effects.

At the conclusion of the trial, the defendant was convicted of three counts of aggravated assault, two counts of criminal damage and two counts of driving under the influence. The defendant appealed his convictions and sentences. On appeal, the defendant argued that the evidence at trial did not support the DUI convictions, because, while he had both lorazepam and methadone in his body, he was using the drugs as prescribed.

The defendant argued that he qualified for the defense of “narrow safe harbor” under Arizona Statutes section 28-1381(D). That statute states that a person using a drug as prescribed by a licensed medical practitioner is not guilty of driving under the influence. The appeals court disagreed, finding that the defendant failed to prove that he was using the medication as prescribed. Although the defendant testified that he was using the medicine as recommended by a doctor, he did not present a prescription or a doctor’s letter. The court noted that he also failed to present any additional evidence suggesting he took the medication as prescribed. For example, the defendant could have presented testimony from the physician who wrote the prescription. The court explained that in this case, the jury heard the evidence and rejected the defendant’s defense. Accordingly, the court affirmed the defendant’s convictions.

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DUI convictions carry harsh punishments under Arizona law. A DUI attorney can help drivers avoid or mitigate the consequences of an Arizona DUI offense to the extent possible. At the Law Offices of James E. Novak, we are committed to protecting the rights of drivers accused of drunk driving, whether it is a first or subsequent offense. James E. Novak is a former prosecutor who understands how the other side tends to approach these cases, and he can anticipate and counter the prosecution’s strategies. Contact us at (480) 413-1499 or by completing the contact form on our website.

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