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Drug-Impaired Driver Sentenced to 16 Years Prison Due to Fatal Crash

One out of every eight Americans or 40 million people in the USA has a Xanax or Alprazolam Prescription.   What you need to know before you get behind the wheel.”  

Recently the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) issued a media release about a motorist in Maricopa County, being sentenced to 16 years in prison, as a result of a fatal DUI crash.  The accident killed a 13 year-old, and critically injuring four others in Phoenix AZ last year.  The driver was convicted of second degree murder, endangerment, aggravated assault and other serious criminal charges. The driver was found to be impaired, under the influence of a prescription drug, Alprazolam (Brand name Xanax).

Cause of the Driver’s Impairment in this DUI Case

Prior to the deadly crash witnesses reported that the motorist was driving erratically and at a high rate of speed.  The driver lost control of the vehicle and rear-ended another vehicle.  The vehicle he hit was carrying a family of six.  The collision caused the vehicle he hit to crash into a median and then rolled over.  The driver was taken to the hospital for minor injuries where his blood was taken and analyzed for DUI. The blood test revealed the prescription drug “Alprazolam”, generic for “Xanax” in his blood stream, and an amount well in access of a therapeutic limit.  The driver also admitted to taking it, and 10 pills were missing from the bottle of the prescription issued the same day, and prior to the fatal crash.  

Xanax/Alprazolam and other Benzodiazepines

The National Centers for Disease and Control (NCDC), revealed a spike in the sales of Xanax or Alprazolam in recent years.  They estimate that one out of every eight Americans or 40 million people in the USA have Xanax or Alprazolam Prescriptions. These statistics were reported by A local news which also reported that Arizona has one of the highest death rates in the country for prescription drug overdoses, according to a new study by the Trust for America’s Health

Alprazolam or Xanax is a prescription medication used to treat anxiety and panic disorders.  Xanax or Alprazolam belongs to a classification of drugs known as Benzodiazepines.   Put simply this family of drugs work through the central nervous system to help reduce or slow down over-active brain cells that cause numerous serious medical conditions including Generalized Anxiety disorder, panic attacks, seizures, and insomnia.    They may be prescribed on for acute episodes or chronic medical conditions.  

Pfizer, the manufacture of the drug report the most common adverse side effects of the drug even if used as prescribed, can result in drowsiness, dizziness, and lightheadedness.

Although the drug is legal, it is strictly regulated and can only be prescribed by a physician.  It is highly addictive.  Overdose is not uncommon, even in teenagers.  The risk of overdose is higher when ingested while under the influence of alcohol, or other drugs. 

Ingesting an amount the exceeds the prescribed dosage can impair thinking and reaction time; cause extreme drowsiness, confusion, behavior changes, loss of coordination, seizures, consciousness, and even death.      

Impaired Driving Due to Legal or Illegal Drugs in the USA 

Statistics, Trends and Research

According to statistics reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse a 2012 national survey revealed an estimated 10.3 million people admitted to driving while under the influence of illegal drugs or abuse of drugs taken legally.

Abuse of Prescription drugs has become one of the nation’s fastest growing drugs problems. One result of this is an increase in Drug Impaired Driving charges as well.      

Since the study was released last year, many some states have legalized Marijuana, in some fashion either on a Medical or Recreational level in 2013.  So the number of motorists driving under the influence of drugs has likely increased since this survey.    

Alcohol or drug impaired driving poses serious risks at a national wide level as well as local for drivers to potentially be arrested for DUI as well as putting other drivers and passengers at risk for Alcohol or Drug DUI related crashes.   Granted, there are some drivers who know they are driving impaired.  But issues being addressed currently by the National Highway Safety Administration include: 

  • Making sure drivers are aware the over the counter or prescription drugs they are taking put them at risk for driving impairments;
  • Quantifying what dosages of the drug cause driving impairments;
  • The *behavior domains, that may be result in being impaired.  

Often drivers are not aware that the drugs they have taken may result in driving impairments.  However, an interesting study by the National Highway Safety Administration resulted in some very interesting conclusions to the contrary.  Recently, NHTSA’s Drugged Driving Expert Panel conducted a study that identified “*5 behavior domains” essential to driving and driving safety. In simple terms these included

  • Alertness or consciousness level; –  fully alert, drowsy, unconscious
  • Processing speed and attentiveness;
  • Reaction time;
  • Sensory functions – seeing, hearing, ability to understand consequences of driving decisions and movements;  and 
  • Executive functions- which relate to the driver’s ability to maintain control over their driving behaviors.

If any drug had the impact of causing impairment to one or more of these “domains”, they were considered a driving safety risk.  Interestingly, however, after completing a comprehensive research study, the panel concluded that currently inadequate information existed to classify drugs into value related levels of driving risk.  In other words, there was not sufficient enough information to create a “safe for driving” list of drugs. 

The NHTSA panel’s conclusions were compelling, but not surprising.  The researchers concluded that the general public and drivers are currently at a disadvantage, because they are deprived of information that could reduce their risk of driving impaired due the drugs they have ingested.   The panel acknowledged that some prescription labels have general warnings such as “this medication may cause drowsiness”; they do not identify the degree of risk that may result in a drug impaired accident; how long after ingesting it that a person can safely drive; resistant impacts of tolerance levels in long term use; the extent to which a driver may be impaired due to “drowsiness” or other side effects; and impacts of using other substances with it. 

Your Rights and Criminal Defense for Drug DUI Arrests

Last year the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety (AGOHS) reported nearly 3700 drug related DUI arrests.  The trend in Arizona is swinging upward for two reasons: More patients have access to prescription drugs than in the past; and qualified users of Medical Marijuana increase.  In many cases, a person does not realize they are driving impaired or that the drug they are using can cause impairment either of itself, or in combination with other drugs, or liquor.  If you are taking drugs of any type with the potential to cause driving impairment, your chances getting a DUI arrest increase drastically.   The drug DUI laws are so strict in Arizona, that a person can even be prosecuted for DUI if they are driving with Marijuana in their system, and non-impairing trace substances are found in their bloodstream, following a DUI stop.  

Drug DUI charges are treated the same or similar under Arizona law with regard to criminal penalties.  This means a first time, non-aggravated, conviction will result in Jail time of at least 10 days; installation of an Ignition Interlock Device (IID) on the vehicle you drive.  This is the case even though currently the IID does not have capability to check for drug substances, only alcohol. Other penalties include fines, fees, assessments, probation, suspension of driver’s license, and participation in screening/education/counseling for alcohol and substance abuse classes.

An arrest does not mean a person is guilty, and is not a conviction. However, it is the beginning of the criminal justice process.   If arrested you have constitutional rights to invoke your silence, and to retain a qualified criminal defense attorney to represent you and defend the charges.  These are very important rights that you should invoke as soon as possible.  If you face an charges in Phoenix, or surrounding East Valley Cities, call experienced Attorney James Novak.  He will provide you with a free consultation by phone (480) 413-1499 concerning your matter, and provide you with defense options available to resolve your matter.   

Don’t miss our next segment which will include an in-depth discussion and analysis of two controversial Arizona Drug Laws.

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