As a Fort Lauderdale drunk driving defense attorney, I was interested to see a recent news report about a DUI from combining alcohol and prescription sleep aid Ambien. According to a Nov. 19 article from WPEC (CBS 12), Palm Beach County Deputy Christopher Grube was acquitted of driving while intoxicated during his off-duty hours. Grube was driving his patrol car in early February when he lost control on an expressway, skidding into a tree in the median. Grube failed field sobriety tests at the scene, a process that was caught on the dashboard camera of his police vehicle. Nonetheless, a West Palm Beach jury acquitted him last week. He is still on paid leave from his job, pending results of an internal investigation.
Grube admitted to having had “a couple” of drinks hours before his crash, and his Palm Beach County DUI lawyer said he was clearly impaired. However, he said, the real cause of the intoxication was the prescription drug Ambien (zolpidem), a newer prescription sleep aid. Grube intended to take a different drug, he said, but mistakenly mixed the Ambien with alcohol, accidentally causing severe intoxication. It’s well-documented that Ambien can cause patients to get up, move around their homes and even drive while asleep, the defense attorney said, even when not mixed with alcohol. Mixing the two can actually increase the drug’s effects. Ambien is not a controlled substance in Florida -- but even if it is, the attorney argued, Grube never intended to take it before driving.
I believe this is a good example of why people charged with a DUI should never plead guilty without at least speaking to an experienced South Florida DUI criminal defense lawyer. Even in a case like this, where the evidence of intoxication is clear and undisputed, prosecutors still must prove their cases. To convict someone of intoxicated driving in Florida, prosecutors must show that the accused had physical control of a vehicle, and:
- has a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 or greater, tested by breath or blood;
- is under the influence of alcohol; OR
- is under the influence of substances listed in the Florida codes, including prescription drugs as well as street drugs and solvents, and is affected to the extent that his or her normal faculties are impaired.
Presumably, Grube either did not have a 0.08 BAC or refused to provide a sample, making it more difficult for prosecutors to convict him of alcohol intoxication. This would have left prosecutors only with a DUI-drugs charge -- and that charge apparently failed. Grube’s attorney is right that Ambien has a history of causing sleepwalking and even sleep driving, which has generated DUI charges against patients in other states, As a Miami-Dade DUI defense attorney, I support a full review of whether Ambien should be on Florida’s list of controlled substances. However, until the Florida government makes such a change, drivers cannot be convicted for driving under the influence of Ambien. And as the article notes, that may be especially true when the driver never intended to take the Ambien, and thus become intoxicated, in the first place. Conduct that is not illegal should never lead to a criminal conviction, no matter how socially or politically unpopular it may be.