The Role of Antidepressant Medication in DUI Arrests

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are antidepressants that affect the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, in the brain.  SSRIs are often the first choice of health care providers for the treatment of depression and anxiety.  That class of medicines affect a chemical imbalance in the brain of people suffering from anxiety and other disorders.  The SSRIs include citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), fluvoxamine CR (Luvox CR), paroxetine (Paxil), paroxetine CR (Paxil CR), and sertraline (Zoloft).

According to statistics, SSRIs and other antidepressants have been prescribed with greater frequency over the last several years.  The use of these drugs in the United States is approximately three times that of other Western countries.

Many people stop taking their SSRIs for various reasons.  But if you stop your medication, you’re supposed to do so very gradually.  If you don’t, you can suffer major side effects.  And, if you’ve been arrested for DUI after stopping treatment with an SSRI, you may be able to show your behavior and conduct at the time of your arrest were not due to impairment by alcohol, but rather by a phenomenon termed “SSRI Withdrawal Syndrome.” 

The peer-reviewed professional journal The Forensic Examiner published an article entitled “Antidepressant Withdrawal syndrome and DUI Evaluation” in its September 22, 2007 issue.  The article reports patients taking SSRIs are “at risk for a well-documented withdrawal syndrome if they abruptly stop their medication. This withdrawal syndrome may produce significant effects that may impair a person’s ability to drive, putting at risk both the driver and others on the road.”

The article continues by noting “[t]he impairment is due to the absence of drugs in the patient, producing the paradox of a potentially impaired driver because of an absence of the influence of drugs.”  And, strikingly, the article discusses how these clinical effects could be misinterpreted as being caused by impairment from alcohol.  According to the article, the symptoms of SSRI  withdrawal syndrome may present anywhere from 12 hours after a missed dose up to 3 weeks after discontinuance.  The average time of onset of symptoms is 1 to 3 days. 

Further, the article notes there are numerous symptoms of SSRI withdrawal syndrome that could potentially cause someone to operate a motor vehicle in a manner that might be misconstrued as them operating while impaired by alcohol or drugs.  These symptoms include visual disturbances, dizziness / vertigo, impaired coordination, tremors, confusion, impaired concentration, and jerking eye movements.  The article continues by noting examination of the suspected impaired person  can reveal numerous symptoms that could be interpreted as them being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  These symptoms include confusion, agitated behavior, distracted affect, an unsteady gait, and inattention to questions.

Finally, according to the article, the suspected impaired person may be agitated and experiencing significant anxiety.  Their behavior may initially be interpreted by the police as a refusal to obey commands during the initial evaluation or during one of the Standard Field Sobriety Exercises.  Either way, refusal may be interpreted as an additional ground to suspect impairment by drugs or alcohol.

My experience representing persons arrested for DUI indicates practically every behavior noted by the officers or otherwise manifested by my clients in DUI cases is consistent with the effects of SSRI withdrawal syndrome.  These behaviors include poor driving often leading to automobile accidents; balance issues, slurred speech (ataxia); cognitive defects; uneven gait; mood swings; agitation; mania; irritability; and confusion.  Therefore, if you were arrested within 12 hours after a missed dose and up to 3 weeks after discontinuance of your SSRI, and you otherwise drank conservatively or not at all before your arrest, you may have been impaired by SSRI withdrawal syndrome, and not by alcohol.  In that case, you would not be guilty of DUI.

Although only a misdemeanor, a DUI conviction is stigmatizing and can result in lost employment, difficulty in obtaining new employment, loss of professional licenses, substantially increased automobile insurance premiums and loss of your driving privileges.  If you’ve been arrested for DUI and you missed a dose or discontinued your SSRI antidepressant within three weeks of your arrest, it’s very important, to contact a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer knowledgeable about SSRI withdrawal syndrome and how it might impact your case.  Doing so will give you the best chance of avoiding a DUI conviction and the resultant damage to your future.  Call me for a free consultation to discuss how I can help you with your DUI case in Duval, Clay, Nassau or St. Johns Counties today.

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