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The Ambien defense

Last week, we examined the unexpected and potentially devastating side effects of Ambien--the world's number one sleep aid. We talked about cases of well-intentioned patients who took the medication as prescribed before bed into order to help them fall asleep. They then awoke to a horrid discovery: that they had committed atrocious crimes in their sleep--without any intention or knowledge of what they were doing.

This unusual chain of events has forced attorneys into uncharted waters. This week, we'll take a look at the legal implications of this effect known as "Ambien blackout." In the courtroom, Ambien blackout poses challenges to attorneys. The uniqueness of this case makes common defense and prosecution strategies inapplicable:

  • Voluntary intoxication: If someone knowingly becomes intoxicated and then commits a general intent crime, their intoxication cannot be used as a defense. However, taking Ambien doesn't exactly fall under this category. While the defendant knowingly took Ambien, it is difficult to make the case that they expected it to produce any effect other than sleep.
  • Involuntary intoxication: If someone is drugged without their knowledge or has an unpredictable reaction to a prescription drug and then commits a crime, involuntary intoxication can be used as a defense. However, in the case of Ambien, this defense doesn't wholly apply either, because the label warns that a potential side effect of taking this drug is engaging in activities without your knowledge or memory of them.
  • Unconsciousness/sleepwalking: The sleepwalking defense is a third possibility. This defense can be used for people who commit a crime while unconscious if they did not intentionally cause their unconsciousness. However, this defense doesn't work for the Ambien case either, because the reason for taking Ambien is to cause unconsciousness (i.e., sleep).

Consequently, many defense attorneys have created a new defense, dubbed the "Ambien defense," to acquit or severely reduce sentences for people for crimes committed while under the influence of Ambien.

Recent cases indicate that the more serious the crime, the more likely the Ambien defense is to work. If you sleep drive and run into a tree, you're less likely to get acquitted using the Ambien defense than if you sleep drive and run a person over. In the first instance, the case is treated like a regular DWI case, and the prosecution only has to prove that the defendant carried out the alleged crime. In the second instance, the prosecution also has to demonstrate intention to commit the crime--which is difficult to prove of a sleep-driving defendant. For such serious crimes, the Ambien defense has been more successful.

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