"Lame excuse", you say? I call it a great defense. In fact, fully expect it to be successful, since there were apparently no other impairment-causing substances reported in her system. I have gotten impaired-driving charges dismissed the same way.
These so-called "sleep driving" cases have become more prevalent in recent years as more people reach for the powerful sleeping drug. People with Ambien prescriptions often have other prescribed medications. Accidents happen, and so the wrong pill can be swallowed. Persons awake while on Ambien are often described as being in a hypnotic trance. When this occurs, the defense of "involuntary intoxication" may be viable. After all, it is not much different than the person who becomes impaired after being "slipped" a drug in their drink. You wouldn't hold that person responsible if they suddenly became impaired while driving home.
Another way to attack it is to show that the act of driving was "involuntary" because of the effects of Ambien. This
defense could be asserted even by drivers who intentionally became drunk but later took Ambien and somehow made it behind the wheel. It is similar to asserting that a crime occurred while sleep walking. In fact, the Supreme Court of Oregon recently ruled, in Oregon v. James Robert Newman, a 6-0 decision, that involuntary driving due to a sleep walking disorder is a viable defense. However, Wis. Stat. § 939.42(1) provides that an intoxicated or drugged condition is a defense if it is involuntarily produced and renders the actor incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong in regard to the alleged criminal act at the time the act is committed. It would seem to include this fact pattern.
A variation of this defense, which is more difficult case to make, is the "sleep drinking" defense. In that scenario, the driver agrees that there was impairment due to alcohol but maintains that the drinking that caused the impairment was involuntary due to the hypnotic effect of Ambien. This could also be framed as involuntary intoxication. I have yet to see that defense play out.
These defenses are far different from the defense of "voluntary intoxication", wherein a defendant admits he/she
purposely became impaired but claims the impairment was so great that it rendered him/her incapable of forming the "intent" necessary to commit the crime. That defense is now being played out in the appeals of Martin Heidgen, Taliyah Taylor and Franklin McPherson, also in the state of New York. These defendants were all convicted of charges stemming from fatal crashes while driving in the wrong lane while drunk. The law they were convicted under required that they acted with "depraved indifference to human life." They claim their level of impairment prevented that mindset. Like the defense of voluntary intoxication generally, that is a very tough sale, if you ask me.
I am a lawyer licensed in the State of Wisconsin and Minnesota. I regularly practice in the field of OWI/DWI/DUI Defense. However, none of my commentaries are ever meant to be legal advice.