Driving While Addicted to a Drug (California Vehicle Code 23152(c) VC)
Most drivers have some familiarity or understanding of the laws concerning driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and the reasons those laws exist. Driving while intoxicated presents a danger to everyone on the road, from the driver of the vehicle and his or her passengers, to other drivers and pedestrians. However, it is a far less known fact that driving a vehicle while addicted to a drug is illegal in California under Vehicle Code 23152(c) VC. In fact, it is unlawful to do so regardless of whether you are actually under the influence of the drug or whether you are experiencing withdrawals at the time you were driving.
According to California Vehicle Code 23152(c) VC, “It is unlawful for a person who is addicted to the use of any drug to drive a vehicle.”1 Despite the clarity of this language, many are not aware that this law even exists. More importantly, most drivers who have an addiction to one or more substances are unaware of the possibility of being arrested for breaking this law even while they are not using their drug of choice.
Why Criminalize Drug Addiction?
Scientists have studied the problem of addiction for decades, and most have come to agree that the physiological and psychological effects of drugs are so powerful that many people cannot overcome their addiction without assistance. In other words, the scientific community has embraced the notion that in many cases, addiction is a disease that requires compassion, understanding, and patience with the person for whom it is a daily struggle.
So, why does California take a seemingly harsh approach to prevent you from driving while addicted to drugs? The rationale is that, if you are suffering from symptoms of withdrawal – fatigue, shaking, headaches, and difficulty concentrating – you can be potentially as dangerous behind the wheel as someone who is under the influence of a drug while they are driving. However, if you are charged with this crime, the prosecution need not prove that you were actually in a state of withdrawal at the time you were driving.
Prosecution of Violations of 23152(c) VC
In order for you to be convicted of driving while addicted to drugs under California Vehicle Code 23152(c) VC, the prosecution must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You drove a vehicle; AND
- When you drove, you were addicted to a drug.2
These elements seem clear, but there are a few key terms that must be understood. First, it is important to know what is considered a “drug”. Under this statute, a drug is “a substance or combination of substances, other than alcohol, that could so affect the nervous system, brain, or muscles of a person that it would appreciably impair his or her ability to drive as an ordinarily cautious person, in full possession of his or her faculties and using reasonable care, would drive under similar circumstances.”3
The second term to understand is “addiction.” This is defined as a state of being where a person:
- Is physically dependent on the drug;
- Suffers withdrawal symptoms if deprived of it;
- Develops a tolerance to the drug’s effects and therefore requires larger and more potent doses; AND
- Has become emotionally dependent on the drug, experiencing a compulsive need to continue its use.4
Punishment for Violating 23152(c) VC
Driving while addicted to drugs in violation of Vehicle Code 23152(c) VC is a misdemeanor in California. The punishment for this crime is very similar to that of a DUI offense. If you are convicted of a first-time offense, you face:
- A maximum sentence of six months in county jail;
- A fine between $390 and $1,000;
- Mandatory suspension of your license for a period of six months; and
- Mandatory enrollment in a drug or alcohol program as would be imposed on a DUI conviction.
Defenses to Driving While Addicted to Drugs
A skilled attorney will be able to raise several defense on your behalf in order to get the best possible results in your case. These may include:
You were enrolled in a drug treatment program. Under 23152(c) VC, there is a provision that excludes persons enrolled in approved treatment or rehabilitation program from being considered in violation of this law.5 If you are participating in such a program, you should carry proof of your enrollment in your vehicle at all times, in the event that you are stopped and suspected of driving while addicted to a drug.
You are a habitual user, but you are not addicted. In the case of People v. O’Neil, the California Supreme Court drew a distinction between habitual use of a drug and the addiction to it, and decided that habitual use is not the danger that the law seeks to avoid. The court stated, “Mere habitual or customary use which falls short of physical or emotional dependence would not necessarily constitute such an ‘abuse of narcotic drugs.’”6 Thus, you will need a skilled attorney to prove that you are not addicted to any narcotic drugs.
You were not driving a vehicle. In order for you to be convicted of this crime, it must be proven that you were driving a vehicle. For example, if you were found sleeping in the back seat of a car, a skilled defense attorney may be able to raise this as a strong defense in your case. However, if you were found sitting in the front seat with the engine on, you could be convicted of this crime as this may be enough indirect evidence to support the officer’s claims that you were driving the vehicle at some point in time before the officer approached you. That is why it is crucial to have an experienced criminal defense attorney to defend you in your case.
Frequently Asked Questions on 23152(c) VC
- If I have a valid prescription for the drug to which I am addicted, can I still be prosecuted for driving while addicted?
Yes. It is not a defense that you are legally entitled to use the drug.7 The law aims to prevent the effects of drug addiction on a driver’s ability to drive safely. How the person acquires the addiction or the drug used to support that addiction is irrelevant to this charge.
- I have a recommendation for medical marijuana. Am I at risk of a conviction for driving while addicted?
For a violation of 23152(c) VC, the most important element that the prosecution must prove is not just that you use the drug, but that you are using it because you are addicted to it. This can be a very difficult case for the prosecution to make if you only use marijuana as treatment for a medical condition. The prosecution will have the burden of proving that you are addicted to the marijuana and that you are experiencing withdrawals rather than symptoms due to your medical condition.
- I am a recovering drug addict, but I still have withdrawals from time to time even though I no longer use the drug. Can I be convicted of driving while addicted to drugs (23152(c) VC)?
If you are recovering or attempting to recover from drug addiction, it is highly recommended that you enter a drug rehabilitation program and carry proof of enrollment at all times while driving. As mentioned, those who have proof of enrollment in a drug treatment program are exempt from violation of this law. If you are not currently in a drug treatment program and show signs of drug addiction, you could be charged with driving while addicted to drugs. However, a skilled criminal defense attorney may be able to challenge these allegations and show the court that you do not match the definition of a drug addict as defined under California law.
Contact the Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich If You Have Been Charged With Violating 23152(c) VC
Have you been charged with driving while addicted to a drug under California Vehicle Code 23152(c) VC? If so, you will need an experienced and aggressive attorney to help you with your defense. At Wallin & Klarich, our attorneys have over 30 years of experience in successfully defending those facing charges of driving while addicted to drugs. We can help you, too. Contact us today for a free, no obligation phone consultation.
With office locations in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Tustin, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, there is an experienced Wallin & Klarich criminal defense attorney near you no matter where you work or live.
Call us today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free phone consultation. We will be there when you call.
5. Cal. Veh. Code § 23152(c) VC: “This subdivision shall not apply to a person who is participating in a narcotic treatment program approved pursuant to Article 3 (commencing with Section 11875) of Chapter 1 of Part 3 of Division 10.5 of the Health and Safety Code.”↩
7. See Cal. Veh. Code § 23630. “The fact that any person charged with driving under the influence of any drug or the combined influence of alcoholic beverages and any drug in violation of Section 23152 or 23153 is, or has been entitled to use, the drug under the laws of this state shall not constitute a defense against any violation of the sections.”↩