Drugged driving under Virginia criminal law

Virginia law is tough on those who drive under the influence of alcohol, but it is equally harsh when drivers get behind the wheel impaired by drugs or by a combination of alcohol and drugs, to the extent that they cannot operate their vehicles safely.

The Virginia DUI statute also has a "per-se" drugged driving provision under which anyone caught driving with certain levels of cocaine, methamphetamines, PCP or ecstasy in his or her body is considered guilty of DUI. Additionally, driving under the influence of any narcotic drug or any other self-administered intoxicant or drug of any nature, such as marijuana, also violates Virginia's DUI statute. Anyone driving within Virginia is legally presumed to give "implied consent" to breath and blood tests to measure drug and alcohol levels within his or her system.

It has become all too common for police officers to take you to the hospital for a blood draw if they suspect you are under the influence of drugs and/or a combination of drugs and alcohol. If you have been lawfully arrested, you must consent to the blood draw or risk being charged with refusal. Once the blood is properly obtained, it is ordinarily sent to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science for chemical analysis.

In court, you can expect to hear testimony from a forensic scientist regarding the presence of any drugs or alcohol and their effect on your ability to drive. If the active metabolite of marijuana was even slightly present in your system, the forensic scientist will likely testify that your motor skills and coordination were affected so as to impair your ability to drive.

Driving while drugged statistics

Drugged driving is a major safety issue in Virginia and across the country. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 4.3 percent (more than 10 million people) of those polled nationally reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs (2006 to 2009 data). "Illicit drugs" includes prescription drugs used "non medically." Those polled in Virginia reported the same percentage of drunk driving as the national result. The same data indicates that about 20 percent of drunk drivers nationally were simultaneously under the influence of drugs.

Virginia penalties

The severity of the Commonwealth of Virginia's criminal sanctions for drugged driving varies depending on whether the offense is a defendant's first offense, has occurred within five or 10 years of a prior DUI, is a third or subsequent offense, or whether a child was riding in the vehicle at the time of the offense. Punishment may include:

  • Up to five years in prison for a third or subsequent offense (felony)
  • Up to 12 months in jail for a first or second offense (misdemeanor)
  • Mandatory minimum sentences of five days to 40 days on misdemeanor convictions
  • Mandatory minimum sentences of six months to one year on felony convictions
  • License suspension of one to three years for misdemeanors and indefinite revocation for felonies
  • Fines
  • Probation
  • Attendance at VASAP (Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program)
  • Installation of ignition interlock on your vehicle
  • Vehicle forfeiture or impoundment

Other negative consequences of a drugged driving conviction are the impact of a criminal record on things like employability, loss of security clearances, discharge from the military, and stigma and guilt when someone else has been hurt or killed.

Legal drugs can also impair

Virginians need to take care not to get behind the wheel after ingesting illegal drugs that could impair their driving abilities, for safety reasons and to avoid criminal charges. The same warning applies to the negative effects of legal drugs, prescription or over the counter.

One legal drug of particular concern is the sleep-aid Ambien, which is widely known to cause people to engage in activities while asleep under its influence, including sleep driving. It may be particularly dangerous to mix Ambien and alcohol. Virginia prosecutors have been bringing DUI charges against drivers under the influence of Ambien even when the drivers do not remember being behind the wheel and had no conscious intention of driving.

For example, Virginians may remember the 2008 case of policeman and firefighter Josh Shortt, who was convicted of DUI after he caused a car accident while sleep driving under the influence of Ambien.

For the safety of others and themselves, drivers in Virginia should not drive after drinking alcohol, using illegal or legal drugs causing impairment, or any combination of these substances. If you are accused of drugged driving in Virginia, you are well advised to seek the help of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney with experience in drugged driving charges to explain the charges and your rights, as well as to begin to build your defense.