America's Number One Prescription Sleep Aid Could Trigger 'Zombies,' Murder and Other Disturbing Behavior
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Schweigert had a job that required a security clearance. She had never been in trouble with the law before and was terrified of losing her job and having a criminal record. Prosecutors initially wanted to impose a six month jail sentence in addition to other punishments, but Schweigert’s lawyer argued that Lindsey’s bizarre behavior on the night in question was a result of a medication which warned right on the label that “After taking AMBIEN, you may get up out of bed while not being fully awake and do an activity that you do not know you are doing. The next morning, you may not remember that you did anything during the night…Reported activities include: driving a car (“sleep-driving”), making and eating food, talking on the phone, having sex, sleep-walking.” In fact, the lawyer argued, Schweigert should have been taken to a hospital, not to jail. Prosecutors dropped the charges and allowed Lindsey to plead to the lesser charge of careless driving, which meant that she could keep her security clearance. Her license was suspended for a year, however, and she had to pay upwards of $9,000 in legal fees.
As a result of the Schweigert verdict, an attorney successfully used the Ambien defense to overturn a 2006 DWI conviction for a New Jersey woman by arguing that the drug's labeling had changed six months after his client’s arrest. The court agreed, saying that it would be an "injustice to hold her responsible for the undisclosed side effects of a popular and readily available medication that she was lawfully prescribed and properly administered."
The Ambien defense was also used in the case of Julie Ann Bronson, a 45-year-old flight attendant from Texas. In April of 2009, Bronson took a couple of Ambien to help her sleep. She had been drinking wine earlier in the day, and went to bed early. She awoke the following morning in jail, still in her pajamas, barefoot and terrified. When she was told that she had run over three people, including an 18-month-old girl who suffered severe brain damage as a result of the wreck, she was horrified. “It was surreal. It was like a bad dream.” In May of 2012, Bronson pleaded guilty to the felonies of intoxication assault and failure to stop and render aid. “I did the crime but I never intended to do it,” she testified. “I wouldn’t hurt a flea. And if I would have hit somebody, I would have stopped and helped. We’re trained in CPR.” Bronson faced ten years, but because of the Ambien defense, she will serve six months in prison and have ten years of probation.
Not all prosecutors will consider the Ambien defense, and its position within established criminal rules is tenuous. It doesn’t really fall under “voluntary intoxication,” in which someone is responsible for his own intoxication and any events that occur as a result of that intoxication. The Ambien defendants knowingly took the drug, but they were not aware that they were drugging themselves in a way that could produce anything other than sleep. Nor does the Ambien defense fit under “involuntary intoxication,” which is when someone commits a crime after being drugged without his knowledge, or has an unpredictable reaction to a prescribed medication. The defendants knowingly took the medication, and the reactions, although surprising, were not unpredictable because they are listed as potential side effects in the prescribing information. Finally, there is the “unconsciousness/sleepwalking” defense, in which the person is not responsible for the crime if he did not intentionally cause the sleepwalking or unconsciousness. The whole motivation for taking Ambien in the first place is presumably to cause unconsciousness so this defense doesn't really apply either.