A Channel 4 I-Team investigation found people who have taken medicine either prescribed by a doctor or in the “therapeutic” range, got behind the wheel and were charged and convicted of DUI.
Assistant District Attorney Jack Arnold said many drivers are surprised to learn taking a certain medication in the prescribed dose is not a defense in a DUI charge.
"I think there is a percentage of defendants who are absolutely surprised and surprised to find themselves charged with a DUI,” Arnold said.
The I-Team reviewed the cases and police video of recently-convicted DUI offenders and found drivers surprised that their medications caused their arrests.
Sandra Tyler, 52, knows that reality all too well.
The body-camera video of a deputy in Dickson County in 2014 shows him speaking with Tyler after she crashed her vehicle into a ditch.
"Your voice is pretty sluggish and you're moving pretty slow," the officer observed on the video.
When he asks her to list all the medication she takes, she struggled to recall them all.
Tyler was later convicted of DUI.
She won’t discuss the accident or her DUI conviction, but she would talk about why she takes all the pain medicine.
"My pain is excruciating,” Tyler said of her degenerative disc problems.
"Do you remember any doctor telling you, alright Sandra, you've taken all this medicine, do not drive?” asked chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley.
"No, my pain clinic doctor never told me that," Tyler said.
Arnold said as a DUI prosecutor, he hears defendants’ attorneys’ often say that their clients had no idea that the medicine could result in a DUI.
"Are you hearing from the people who have caused these accidents, hey, I’m only doing what my doctor told me to do?" Finley asked.
"I am absolutely hearing that,” Arnold said.
The I-Team obtained another video of the arrest of Mary Chauvin, 55, who told the officer that she did take prescribed medication.
After she fails the sobriety test, Chauvin is astounded.
“No, you can't do this. I've got to go get my little girl. I don't drink,” Chauvin can be heard saying during her arrest.
“Ma’am, you're under the influence of medication,” the officer responded.
When contacted by the I-Team by phone, Chauvin said she takes medication for pain, and even though she was convicted of DUI, she did not feel that her medication caused her to be driving impaired.
Arnold said he’s seen so many cases of people taking their medications and getting DUIs that he believes the very labels on certain medicine should change.
"It's (the labels) are a lot of ‘may.’ It's a lot of ‘use caution.’ And for some of these drugs, I think the label should be ‘don't drive,’” Arnold said. "All I know for sure is that people are dying."
Stacy Askins’ husband, Ron, was killed in a crash involving a woman who prosecutors said mixed medications, some of which were prescribed by her doctor.
"He was definitely the love of my life,” Askins said.
Michelle Widner, 37, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide in Askins’ death.
Widner denied our request to comment.
Arnold said that even though Widner had taken some medicine not prescribed to her, she was still within the “therapeutic” range on all her medication.
"You believe that she (Widner) was surprised that the medications caused this to happen?” Finley asked.
"Yes," Arnold said.
Askins said her husband’s death made her rethink how she feels about taking certain prescription medicine and then driving.
"Do you think the labels are strict enough?" Finley asked.
"No, no, I don't think they're strict enough,” Askins said.
Micah Cost, executive director of the Tennessee Pharmacists Association, said he knows pharmacists are considered the last line of defense against people taking medication and causing accidents.
"Have we reached the point where pharmacists should be saying, do not drive on this medicine?" Finley asked.
"I think it all depends on patients, how patients respond. I think it depends on that front-end counseling from pharmacists," Cost said.
Cost points out that different people react differently to medication, so a blanket warning against driving may not be effective. He said it’s more important that pharmacists counsel each customer about the potential impact of medication.
Even though Tyler said her pain clinic doctor didn’t warn her about driving, she did go to see her primary care physician after her crash in desperation.
"I have to have some help. I can't take these medicines they're giving me, and I don't want to," Tyler said.
Tyler’s court file shows that her primary care doctor wrote a note to her insurance company asking to remove her from their automobile insurance and gave her a strict order.
"Due to my medications, do not drive,” Tyler said.
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