Medical Conditions and DUI

Posted by Richard Lawson | Jan 18, 2015 | 4 Comments

A recent blog about drugs and DUI led to a discussion with my G+ friends about prescription drug use and medical conditions that could give law enforcement the impression a driver is impaired by alcohol or drugs.

We cannot expect the police to make medical diagnoses, especially in highly unpredictable and ever-changing situations.  Police departments, though, could do a better job of training their officers to be aware of certain illnesses and other chronic medical conditions that look like DUI of alcohol or drugs.  This would keep many people from being arrested and falsely accused of a crime they did not commit.

Dealing with someone who seems drunk or drugged is very similar to what one would encounter with a person who was experiencing a medical emergency.  The difference is a moral one.  One driver made the decision to get behind the wheel of an automobile after consuming alcohol or drugs and break the law; the other did not.  Some medical emergencies come about because of a lack of personal responsibility (not following doctor's orders or taking prescribed medications), but the driver/patient is not necessarily breaking the law.  Even if a driver, who is ill, becomes combative with law enforcement as a result of a medical condition, a criminal charge might not be the right resolution.

What it comes down to is criminal intent.  Officers are not responsible for making sure people take their medications and follow their physician's orders; they are here to enforce the law and protect citizens.  Most traffic laws are strick liability offenses.  Intent to violate the law is not an element of the offense.  For law school graduates, there is no “mens rea” element in our traffic laws.

Many medical conditions have the same effects as alcohol or drug use.  Some of these circumstances can make people do things they would otherwise never do, such as attack a police officer.

Here are some common medical conditions that can mimic DUI:

  • Low blood sugar or hypoglycemia
  • High blood sugar or Hyperglycemia
  • Hypoxia (lack of oxygen to a person's body)
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI
  • Hypothermia (body temperature too cold)
  • Hyperthermia (body temperature too hot)
  • Seizures
  • Migrane headache
  • Injury from a deployed airbag
  • injury from an automobile accident (or being stunned)
  • exhustion

One of the ways drivers could inform the police of a medical condition is to wear Medic Alert-type bracelet or other jewelry that states their medical condition or medication, if necessary.  However, beware, if your medical condition is one that does not allow for alcohol consumption that information can be used against you if you are found to have been driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

All in all, law enforcement should try not only to focus on the criminal aspect of a traffic stop and should always be on the lookout for medical emergencies that have arisen or could arise.

However, we are all responsible to safely operate our motor vehicles.  A person cannot operate a motor vehicle while being under the influence of a legally prescribed prescription drug or drugs.

About the Author

Richard Lawson

Managing Partner at Lawson & Berry:


kathy villanueva Reply

Posted Jan 21, 2015 at 07:41:41

Keep up the good work Richard! Much Respect! Happy hump day! Kat

Richard Lawson Reply

Posted Jan 21, 2015 at 09:31:46

Thanks Kathy. I appreciate you reading it.

Shawna Goodwin Reply

Posted Aug 01, 2015 at 10:32:03

This is a critical situation though. Carrying the prescription handy is not always possible. As a benefit of doubt, the police must consider the fact provided by the person. Thanks for posting informative article.

Richard Lawson Reply

Posted Aug 01, 2015 at 12:42:55

I agree. Too many times the police assume guilt before even considering what a person has to say. Thanks for the Comment Ms.Goodwin.

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