9 Investigates: Legal drugs getting drivers into trouble

by: Paige Hansen Updated:

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - In and around Charlotte, authorities are on the look-out for a new kind of problem behind the wheel. Catching and convicting drug-impaired drivers is not easy, especially when the drugs drivers are taking are legal.

Kathy Seay said what happened to her can happen to anyone who takes prescription drugs and gets behind the wheel.

"I just know I am perfectly fine, I am just innocent," Seay said. "A lot of people are on prescribed medication. I know that, I'm a nurse. I've been a nurse 21 years."

Seay has also been charged twice with DWI. Her attorney said he is taking more cases like Seay's: DWI cases where the impairing substance is not alcohol or hard drugs, but prescription medicine. The rise in cases may be because officers are stopping more drivers suspected of prescription impairment.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department shared a video with Eyewitness News that shows a 19-year-old driver who officers said is "clearly impaired" and admitted to using prescription pills and marijuana.

CMPD officer Jonathan Cerdan arrested the driver, who he said did not have any alcohol in his system.

Police told Channel 9 they come across plenty of drivers who do mix prescriptions and alcohol.

"A lot of people will try to mask their impairment from prescription drugs or other drugs with a little bit of alcohol," CMPD officer Jonathan Kupfer said.

Channel 9 met three of Mecklenburg County's seven Drug Recognition Experts or DREs.  They undergo 80 hours of training to spot people impaired by both illegal and legal drugs, like prescription medicines.

Tony Chesser, a sergeant with Mecklenburg County's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Law Enforcement Division, is one of them.

"People, for some reason, have this in their mind that if their doctor says they can take it, then there's no impairing effects to it. That's the furthest thing from the truth," Chesser said.

Chesser said it is a common defense and doctors rely on patients to figure out how a medication affects them.

Channel 9 asked Seay, "Does your prescription medicine say 'do not operate heavy machinery?'"

"Yes. Most of my medications do. But I've been on them for eight, nine years,” she said.

"And you don't think you're impaired?" Channel 9 asked.

"No, I do not think I'm impaired on my medications," Seay said.

In April, a judge found Seay not guilty of her 2011 DWI charge.  Court documents stated her blood tests showed a bipolar medication, which can cause impairment. 

"I think it is more difficult for the state with prescription drugs than it is with alcohol," Seay's DWI attorney James Minick said about proving impairment in court.

Seay has another DWI charge pending, but was pulled over by a non-DRE certified state trooper. Again, her blood tests showed nothing except the pills she takes for depression and bipolar disorder.

Chesser said, officers without drug recognition training rarely get convictions, which is why he says, more drug recognition experts are needed.

CMPD made seven drug-impaired driving arrests in 2013.  So far this year, the department has made 13.

Across the state, many officers are getting a similar, but less-intense training that precedes the course Drug Recognition Experts go through. 

CMPD said Oxycodone, alprazolam (Xanax), zolpidem (Ambien), diazepam (Valium), carisoprodol (Soma) and clonazepam (klonopin) are the five most common pills they see.

Nationwide, the Department of Transportation says 3,436 people have died since 2008 in accidents involving drivers who took at least one of those drugs.