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Corner Brook judge acquits woman in case of impaired driving and prescription drugs

A Royal Newfoundland Constabulary vehicle.
A Royal Newfoundland Constabulary vehicle. - SaltWire Network

A west coast woman charged with operating a vehicle while impaired by drug has been acquitted — she was prescribed the cocktail of meds and had been declared fit by her doctor to drive.

“(The accused) knowingly consumed the drugs that led to her ability to operate a motor vehicle being impaired. However, she did not consume them for the purpose of becoming impaired,” Corner Brook Judge Wayne Gorman wrote in the recently released provincial court decision.

“She took them for legitimate medical reasons and did so in a proper and conscientious fashion. Her actions do not meet the standard of recklessness.”

The Telegram has decided not to name the acquitted woman in order to protect her medical privacy.

Toxicology analysis conducted as part of the case revealed that the woman had traces of several drugs in her system the day she was pulled over. They included two anti-seizure drugs, an antipsychotic and a depressive disorder/anxiety drug, an allergy medication and an insomnia drug.

The decision included a description of the drugs:

Zopliclone is prescribed for the short-term treatment of insomnia and may have been present in urine at the time of sample collection.

Citalopram treats major depressive disorder and anxiety.  

Diphenhydramine is an over-the-counter medication used for relief from allergy symptoms (such as Benadryl), as a sleep aid (such as Sleep-eze), and can be found as a component in some anti-nausea and cold and flu medications.

Levetiracetam treats epilepsy, a seizure disorder.

Clonazepam is primarily prescribed for the treatment of seizure disorders but may also be prescribed to control anxiety and panic disorder in some people.

Mirtazapine treasts major depressive disorder.  

Propranolol is for hypertension (high blood pressure).  

Norquetiapine is an active metabolite of the drug quetiapine, an antipsychotic drug prescribed for the treatment of schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder.  

“The effects that the combination of drugs detected in this case would have on a person is dependent upon the individual’s tolerance to these drugs, the dose of each drug, and the timing of their administration in relation to each other,” Gorman said. “It can be expected, however, that the combined use of multiple drugs that affect the (central nervous system) would result in greater impairment of mental and/or physical processes than would be expected following their individual use.” 

“I accept (the accused woman’s) evidence that she followed the instructions given to her and that she did not combine her medication with any illicit drugs."
-Judge Wayne Gorman

Pleaded not guilty

According to the evidence given at trial, the woman was stopped by police on July 1, 2017, in Corner Brook after they said they saw her cut off another vehicle, swerve in her own lane, as well as slow down and speed up. The officers concluded that her ability to operate a motor vehicle was impaired by a drug. A police officer designated as a drug recognition expert responded to the scene.

After the woman took field sobriety tests and provided a urine sample — which a toxicologist concluded contained drugs from the central nervous system depressant category — she was charged with operating a motor vehicle while her ability to do so was impaired by a drug. 

The woman pleaded not guilty, saying she took her medication as directed and had not combined it with alcohol or any illicit substances. 

Gorman said he found the woman to be a honest and credible witness, and that while her ability to operate a vehicle was impaired, she took the meds as prescribed and was not reckless in her intentions. 

“I accept (the accused woman’s) evidence that she followed the instructions given to her and that she did not combine her medication with any illicit drugs,” Gorman said in the decision. 

“I also accept her evidence that she had not had any symptoms of impairment as a result of her medication routine, prior to July 1, 2017. I agree with (Legal Aid lawyer Jaimie) Luscombe that it was reasonable for (her) to rely upon the opinion of her neurologist that she was 'fit' to drive.”

According to the court decision, the woman had been prohibited from driving as a result of seizures and had for a time voluntarily stopped driving while the effectiveness of her medication was being assessed. But in April 2017, the neurologist treating her completed a Motor Registration Department form that set out the medications she was taking for her seizures and their effect upon her ability to operate a motor vehicle.

The form contains a standardized question concerning the impact that the medication has on the patient’s ability to drive.  

The neurologist answered: “(Patient) is fit for driving at present,” the decision noted.

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