DWI Laws and Prescription Medication
In New Jersey, a DWI charge may be based on the influence of prescription medications. New Jersey’s DWI statute, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, punishes the operation of a motor vehicle under the influence of, among other controlled substances, narcotics. New Jersey courts have interpreted the definition of “narcotic” to include prescription drugs. In State v. Tamburro, 68 N.J. 414 (1975), the Supreme Court of New Jersey upheld the DWI conviction of a defendant who was driving after having taken a daily prescribed dose of methadone, despite the fact that he was enrolled in a methadone maintenance program.
To be convicted of a drug DWI, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that drugs were present in the driver’s system (usually through blood or chemical testing, though this not always required) and that the driver was intoxicated at the time he was driving the vehicle to the point where his condition was so impaired that he was a danger to himself or others on the road (for a detailed discussion of the standard of proof, see State v. Bealor, 187 N.J. 574 (2006)). Further, if the officer suspects that the driver is under the influence of prescription drugs and the drugs are present in the vehicle, the officer may require the driver to show proof of the prescription. The driver may be subject to penalties if he is unable to do so.
In addition to the standard DWI defenses (improper administration of a field sobriety test, lack of justification for the traffic stop, etc), a person charged with a prescription drug DWI may attempt to defend against the charge by attacking the testing performed by the police to detect the presence of the drugs and the level of intoxication. First, the New Jersey implied consent law, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.2(a), may not require a driver to submit to a blood test to determine the presence of prescription drugs in his blood stream. The implied consent law only explicitly requires a driver to submit to a breath, blood, or urine test to determine the presence of alcohol if a police officer reasonably suspects that the driver is intoxicated. Since the implied consent law focuses only on alcohol, a person not under the influence of alcohol may not be compelled to submit to a blood test to detect the presence of drugs, and may lawfully refuse. If a person is compelled to submit to such a test, the results of the test could be inadmissible and the driver should not be subject to any of the penalties for refusing a blood test.
Further, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in State v. Bealor that the preferred method for proving a driving under the influence of drugs case is expert testimony. If a driver’s DWI charge is based entirely on the common observations of police officers and there is no expert testimony, he may be able to defend the charge by attacking the credibility of the testimony. It should be noted, however, that the court did not hold that expert testimony is necessarily required, just that it is preferred. In fact, the court held that in certain circumstances police officers could be qualified as experts by virtue of their training and experience. However, where the intoxicating effects of a drug are more subtle and difficult to detect, the need for expert opinion should be more pressing, and a defendant facing a DWI charge for prescription medication should try to make that claim when expert testimony is lacking.