Recent news concerning law enforcement procedures in DUI cases has been quite troubling. The Times Free Press recently reported that police and prosecutors routinely ask for drug testing when a DUI suspect’s blood sample comes back within the legal limit. The problem is that prosecutors sometimes charge ordinary prescription drug users with DUI after tests indicate the presence of these legal drugs.
It’s true that sometimes the use of legal prescription drugs can result in legitimate DUI charges. If you are unable to drive safely while using your prescriptions, you should not be driving.
The mere use of a prescription drug, however, does not mean that the drug caused impairment. There are many other possible causes of car accidents.
The Times Free Press cited the example of a woman who backed into another car in a parking lot in 2015. She failed a field sobriety test and the officer described her as having a “distant” look in her eyes. Although field sobriety tests are notoriously subjective and having a “distant” look isn’t necessarily suspicious, he charged her with DUI.
When her blood test came back negative for alcohol, the state ordered it retested for drugs. That test also came back clean — except for Prozac, an extremely common, legally prescribed antidepressant that is unlikely to cause driving impairment. That’s especially true after a patient has been using the drug for a while, and the woman had been taking it for eight months.
Nevertheless, prosecutors continued to press charges for a year and a half before dismissing them.
The Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office insists it only presses charges it can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. But in a case like the one we’ve been discussing, there is no real reason to suspect that the use of a prescription drug was the underlying cause of a car accident.
As we discussed in a recent post, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals just found that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation collects a substantial fee for drug and alcohol testing — but only when the defendant is found guilty. That creates an unconstitutional conflict of interest.
It is therefore legitimate to ask: Are prosecutors entangling innocent people in DUI cases simply because they happen to use legal medications?