1005 N. Marion St.
Tampa, FL 33602
813.250.0500
  •   ›  
  •   ›  
  •   ›  
  • Ambien DUI in Florida

No DUI in Florida for “Sleep Driving” on Ambien

The attorneys at the Sammis Law Firm have represented several clients charged with DUI who reported taking Ambien and going to sleep in their bed shortly before their arrest. Unfortunately, these types of cases have become more common over the years.

In fact, we recently went to trial on such a case in New Port Richey, Florida. In that case, we helped our client obtain a long fought "not guilty" verdict on October 13, 2015.

For the jury trial, we hired Ron Bell who is an expert in the field of forensic toxicology. He reviewed our client's prescription for Zolpidem, the video taken after her arrest, and the police report showing that our client told the arresting officer that she thought she had taken the sleeping pill about 30 minutes prior to being stopped. As an expert witness, Ron Bell did a wonderful job of explaining how sleep driving can occur after taking Ambien (Zolpidem) and how the person might wake up in a jail cell with no recollection of the events that occurred after taking the sleeping pill.  


What is Ambien or Zolpidem?

The FDA defines “sleep driving” as "driving while not fully awake after ingestion of a sedative-hypnotic product, with no memory of the event.” Several sedative-hypnotic products can cause sleep driving including Ambien, Rozerem, Sonata, and Lunesta. Although “sleep driving” is extremely dangerous, it is not illegal as a "DUI" under Florida law.

Under Florida’s DUI statute, three types of substances or a combination of these three substances can cause DUI impairment:

  1. Alcoholic beverages;
  2. Any chemical substance set forth in section 877.111; or
  3. Any substance controlled under chapter 893.

Zolpidem which is sold under the brand name Ambien (zolpidem tartrate) is not listed as a controlled substance under Florida Statute § 893.03. Additionally, Ambian (Zolpiedem) does NOT qualify as a chemical substance or an alcoholic beverage.

To date, the Florida Legislature has not expanded the definition of substances causing impairment under the DUI statute to include Ambien. Because Ambien is used right before bedtime, the number of cases involving individuals driving under its influence are rare. Unlike alcohol or recreational drugs, it is not used to create a “high” or while people are partying.

Unlike alcohol or recreational drugs, Ambien is not used to create a “high” or while people are partying. Arguably, the impairment is caused by being asleep, not by the intoxicating effects of the substance.


Impairment from Ambien while Driving is not a "DUI" in Florida

DUI specifically requires proof beyond all reasonable doubt of impairment from alcohol, or a qualifying chemical or controlled substance. Although Ambien, on a rare occasion, might cause a person to drive while half asleep and half awake it does not meet the definition of DUI under Florida’s current DUI laws.

In these cases, the arresting officer might say that he also smelled alcohol making it very difficult to distinguish between the impairment caused by alcohol versus the impairment caused by the fact the person was half asleep and half awake. In a DUI case involving alcoholic beverages, the jury instructions require proof beyond all reasonable doubt that the Defendant was under the influence of

In a DUI case involving alcoholic beverages, the jury instructions require proof beyond all reasonable doubt that the Defendant was under the influence of alcoholic beverages to the extent that his or her normal faculties were impaired. 

The jury is also told that the term “normal faculties include but are not limited to the ability to see, hear, walk, talk, judge distances, drive an automobile, make judgments, act in emergencies and, in general, to normally perform the many mental and physical acts of our daily lives.”

Other types of impairment, although extremely dangerous, would also not qualify a “DUI.” For instance, a person can be impaired from too much caffeine, extreme fatigue that is not induced by medication, a seizure, extreme emotional distress, or being distracted by a cell phone or text message.

Although these behaviors could be dangerous and might qualify as a criminal offense under another statute, they would not qualify as DUI despite the fact that some type of “impairment” was found.


What is Sleep Driving?

In many of these cases a person takes the sleeping pill and then while partially asleep, unknowingly partially wakes up and engages in some routine behavior such as eating, having sex, or walking around. Another routine behavior is grabbing the car keys and walking to a vehicle to drive away. Unfortunately, sleep-driving is a well-documented phenomenon which is similar to sleep-walking.

In many of these cases, the person is stopped for suspicion of being under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. The person is often only semi-clothed or in their pajamas and appears to be disoriented.

Ambien (Zolpidem) can cause memory loss and amnesia. After these incidents, the person might have no recollection of driving or the initial contact with the officer. Instead, the person describes “walking up in a jail cell” with no recollection of how they ended up being arrested for DUI. Many witnesses to the phenomenon describe the person as being in a sleep-like trance.

In these cases, the impairment is not caused by a “high” from the Ambien. Instead, the impairment is caused because the person is actually partially asleep although their eyes are open and they are driving a vehicle. The person experiences a “dissociative” reaction when certain neural connections are blocks and signals from the brain stem and subcortical areas are deactivated. In these cases, the person is essentially half asleep and half awake.


Even the FDA Recognizes DUI Ambien may be an "Involuntary" Act

In 2007, the FDA ordered drug manufacturers of Ambien and similar sedative-hypnotic drugs to warn users of the side effect of “sleep walking” or “sleep driving.” The warning can be found on the bottle label and also on the medication guide that is included with the prescription.

It appears from our research and talking to experts that drinking alcohol, even in moderation, before taking Ambien makes it more likely that the phenomenon of sleep-driving after taking Ambien. Therefore, if you take Ambien, don't take it if you have consumed alcohol or any other type of controlled substance.

Doctors prescribing Ambien should also be aware of these problems and talk to their patients about these problems. Family members should monitor anyone taking Ambien and report any unusual behaviors to the person the next day. 


Additional Information

Scientific Study on Incidents of Zolpidem Use in Suspended DUI Drivers in Florida - Read an article published on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The NCBI advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. The comprehensive study on DUI with Ambien is entitled “The incidence of Zolpidem use in suspected DUI drivers in Miami-Dade Florida: a comparative study using immunalysis Zolpidem ELISA KIT and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry screening.” J Anal Toxicol. 2008 Oct;32(8):688-94. The article traces the history of Zolpidem (Ambien), a non-benzodiazepine hypnotic agent, was approved for use in the United States for the short-term treatment of insomnia in 1993. The article explains why Zolpidem is an ideal sleep aid because of its rapid onset of action and short elimination half-life. The purpose of the study was to “evaluate, and retrospectively compare, the use of the Immunalysis ELISA kit and gas chromatograpy-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to screen blood/urine specimens for zolpidem.” Additionally, the purpose of the study was to compare the incidence of zolpidem in suspected DUI drivers in 2007 are compared to previous years' data. The study found “ten cases of suspected DUI drivers in 2007 confirmed positive for zolpidem by ELISA and GC-MS in blood/urine, a higher incidence rate than in the previous years.”


Finding a DUI Attorney for DUI with Ambien

If you were arrested for a DUI or another type of felony or misdemeanor involving impairment from Ambien or Zolpidem in Florida, then contact an experienced criminal defense attorney at the Sammis Law Firm.

We represent clients throughout Tampa and Plant City in Hillsborough County, FL, and the surrounding areas for a variety of different types of DUI cases involving alcohol, drugs or prescription medications.

Call (813) 250-0500 today to talk to an attorney.


This article was last updated on Friday, June 23, 2017.