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Kerry Kennedy’s DUI trial: The Ambien Defense

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  Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, was arrested on July 13, 2012, for Driving Under the Influence.  After driving erratically on the Interstate, Kennedy crashed her SUV and was found slumped over the steering wheel. Toxicology reports showed trace amounts of the generic form of Ambien in Kennedy’s system. Your Denver Accident Attorney knows that Ambien is a hugely popular sleep aid belonging to a class of drugs called “hypnotics.”  Sleep aids in this category can cause behaviors that occur while people are only partially awake, and that people do not remember doing. Periods during which these behaviors occur are known as “Ambien blackouts” and people who engage in this type of behavior are called “Ambien Zombies.”

    Kennedy told police that the morning of the accident, she remembers taking what she thought was her thyroid medication (Synthroid), and then getting in her SUV to go to the gym. After getting onto the Interstate, she remembers nothing else. The toxicology results showing Ambien in her system, as well as the memory loss due to an “Ambien blackout” lead to the theory that Kennedy mistakenly took Ambien instead of her thyroid medication.  Both bottles were next to each other, similar in appearance, and the pills were similar as well. Most importantly, sleep-driving is a classic side effect of Ambien.

    Your Denver Accident Attorney notes that the sleep-driving defense, or Ambien defense, is used in DUI cases, as well as vehicular assault and manslaughter cases, when the defendant cannot remember getting into the accident or even driving the car, and took Ambien or a sleep aid with its same active ingredient immediately prior to the accident. The FDA has required new, more detailed labeling on sleep aid medications such as Ambien, warning users that blackouts and sleep activities, including driving, can occur. Although the labeling might suggest some level of culpability for users, since the risk of sleep-driving while under the influence of Ambien is well documented, in Kennedy’s case she did not intentionally take Ambien. Her acquittal after only one hour of jury deliberation seems to be appropriate in light of all the facts particular to her case.

    But what about those who do intentionally take Ambien or its generic equivalent to treating insomnia? Should they be allowed to avail themselves of the Ambien defense if they are later found driving under the influence of the sleep aid, or worse, if they cause an accident while in one of the Ambien blackouts? The potential for these dangerous episodes is well known, and the label of the medication itself contains a warning. Perhaps the burden is on the user of the medication to take extra precautions against sleep-driving, such as locking their car keys up at night or putting an alarm on the front door or garage door that can be activated at night if someone attempts to leave the house after going to bed. 

    If you have been in an accident involving a DUI charge, contact Jordan Levine, your Denver Accident Attorney at Levine Law today