Can you be charged with a prescription-related North Carolina DWI?

The short answer is yes, but it depends on whether the medication impairs your driving abilities. Driving while under the influence - DWI - often is associated with alcohol use, but illicit drugs and medications may also support a charge.

Recently, a mayor in coastal North Carolina was charged with a DWI after allegedly driving while on an anxiety medication. A breathalyzer test showed his blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.0, but he failed field sobriety tests. The results of a blood test revealed Benzodiazepines in his system. Doctors often prescribe this type of medicine to treat insomnia, seizures and anxiety.

Reports did not include how much of the drug was in his system. It is also not clear what prompted the initial traffic stop. An officer must have a reasonable suspicion of a traffic law violation to stop a vehicle.

Some other categories of medication that can interfere with driving are antidepressants (trazodone can cause sleepiness); pain medications (Vicodin or Fioricet) and antiseizure drugs (lorazepam may slow reflexes). Any sleep medication or tranquilizer can also cause problems. A normal does of Valium impairs functional ability similar to a 0.10 blood alcohol level. These medications usually come with warnings regarding driving.

Impaired driving charges

In North Carolina, it is a crime to drive a vehicle in a public area "while under the influence of an impairing substance." This can be alcohol (a BAC of .08 or more) or any amount of a controlled substance (for example heroin or codeine). The prosecution needs to prove that the amount of the drug in a person's system was enough to cause "appreciable impairment" to his bodily or mental faculties.

A first offense DWI is a misdemeanor. Any aggravating factors can increase the severity of the sentence. Subsequent DWI charges become more serious.

Possible sentences

At a sentencing hearing, the judge weighs aggravating and mitigating factors. A prior conviction for DWI within seven years would count as an aggravating factor. On the other hand, a safe driving record or impairment caused by a prescribed medication may operate as mitigating factors.

A level five sentence includes a fine up to $200 and a minimum jail sentence or community service of 24 hours. At the other end of the spectrum, a level one punishment carries a fine of up to $4,000, a possible jail sentence of 24 months, continuous alcohol monitoring and a substance abuse assessment and possible treatment.

Besides the criminal penalties, a conviction may make it more difficult to find employment or housing. If you have been charged with a DWI, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can explain your rights.