The Ambien Drug Defense: Can it beat a DUI/DWI in PA or NJ?

I have written a lot about DUI in Pennsylvania and some of you have even read my free book on it.  Right now, however, I want to focus on a Philadelphia woman is currently on trial in New Jersey for DUI following her arrest in November of last year in Washington Township, Gloucester County. This case is somewhat unique because the accused is a Catholic School nun who has no prior criminal history. Sister Kimberly Miller, 41, currently serves as a high school librarian and theology teacher in Philadelphia and the student body along with the parents remain in shock. Miller’s trial was last week and the New Jersey judge who heard the criminal case is expected to render a verdict next week.

During the New Jersey criminal trial, Sister Miller’s attorneys argued an involuntary intoxication defense and based their defense argument on an unexpected interaction between alcohol and Ambien. Miller’s attorneys classified the reaction as an “adverse reaction” but the prosecution argued that this intoxication shouldn’t be considered involuntary but rather an expected consequence of mixing a narcotic with alcohol.

In Pennsylvania, like New Jersey, voluntary intoxication isn’t a defense to any criminal charge with the exception of murder where the defense seeks to mitigate the degree of the crime from first to second degree murder (to avoid a death sentence or life without the possibility of parole.) Criminal defense attorneys have tried this defense in sexual assault and rape cases without success. In the case of DUI, the prosecution must establish that the accused individual was under the influence of drugs or alcohol which made her unable to operate a vehicle safely on the road. The severity of the charge is based on the degree of intoxication or other substances within the person’s system at the time of the arrest. Unlike, alcohol, which requires a specific Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC), drug are a strict liability standard so any amount will lead to a criminal conviction.

In the case of Sister Miller, the defense conceded that Miller consumed alcohol prior to driving but that the alcohol’s interaction with the drug Ambien led to an eventual car accident and her arrest. Following the accident the police officer did conduct field sobriety tests which Miller failed. Miller’s attorneys, however, argued that she didn’t know that the drug Ambien would have an adverse reaction when consumed with alcohol. I believe, however, that this is a weak defense given that Ambien is a drug used to treat insomnia which, again, Miller’s attorneys conceded in their argument to the court. While at least one New Jersey court found the “Ambien Defense” to be a viable strategy for an accused back in 2006, Ambien and other insomnia manufacturers have since revised their labels to include a warning about driving.

The drug’s warning label clearly indicates that the drug can cause you to sleep walk and that you should not take the drug unless you are able to stay in bed for a full night (7-8 hours) before you need to become active again. Further, you should only take Ambien before you get into bed if not sooner. In this situation, Miller’s defense conceded to the court that she took Ambien and followed it with two glasses of wine. While the defense argued that the glasses were small the prosecution correctly pointed out that the Ambien warning label indicates that alcohol can amplify the effects of Ambien.

The bottom line is that this is weak defense but Sister’s Miller attorneys most likely believed it to be her best option at trial. For more information about DUI in Pennsylvania, I encourage you to read my monthly newsletter, watch my videos and read my FREE book.

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