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Is Alcohol Addiction a Valid Defense to OVI?

Posted On: August 31st, 2023   |   Posted by: Luftman, Heck & Associates LLP
Alcohol and gavel

Operating a Vehicle under the Influence (OVI) is a grave offense in Ohio. It endangers other drivers. If you’re convicted, you’ll face grim, long-term legal consequences. Like many states, Ohio imposes harsh penalties on drunk drivers. With everything we know about alcohol addiction and substance abuse, can alcohol addiction be considered a valid defense to OVI?

Despite being widely accepted as a medical disorder, alcohol dependency cannot be a direct defense to OVI charges. However, its recognition as such can impact various facets of the legal proceedings.

The Columbus DUI/OVI lawyers at Luftman, Heck & Associates provide a comprehensive analysis of the use of alcohol addiction as a potential defense strategy to OVI charges. By understanding how addiction contributes to the problem of impaired driving, people can secure the help they really need. Then they can work to mitigate the negative impact on their already difficult situation.

Alcohol Addiction is a Disease

The American Medical Association has recognized alcoholism (or alcohol use disorder) as a medical illness since 1956. Over the years, research has shown that prolonged alcohol use can change the brain’s structure and function. Alcoholism is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences.

Driving Impaired Could Be a Harmful Consequence

To demonstrate the effects of alcoholism on the decision to drive intoxicated, let’s consider you are a 45-year-old who began consuming alcohol during their late teenage years. Initially, it was a way to fit in and alleviate the stresses of adolescence. But as the years progressed, your consumption changed from occasional weekend drinking to almost daily drinking.

Over two decades, you’ve developed an alcohol dependence. Such reliance on alcohol has likely:

  • Changed Your Brain Structure & Function – Prolonged alcohol use can alter your brain, particularly in regions associated with judgment, decision-making, and impulse control. This alteration reduces the capacity to weigh the risks and consequences of actions.
  • Resulted in Compulsive Behavior Addiction to alcohol is characterized by the compulsion to consume alcohol. The overwhelming urge to drink could eclipse other considerations, including safety. This urge, driven by brain changes, might even make someone choose to drink even if they had initially planned to drive.
  • Diminished Your Impose Control – Even if you recognize the potential harm in driving intoxicated, your addiction might have made it exceptionally challenging to resist the temptation of alcohol. This difficulty extends beyond the act of drinking to subsequent decisions, like choosing to drive while under the influence.

So, for example, if you drank several beers at a bar, you know full well that you should not drive. However, the compulsive nature of your addiction and the diminished judgment from the changes in your brain could make someone rationalize that driving the short distance home is not an issue. This is a classic manifestation of how alcoholism can impact decision-making. It usually leads some to make risky choices.

This example in no way justifies the act of drunk driving. It merely offers a perspective on how the chronic nature of alcoholism, supported by medical findings, might influence an individual’s decision to drive under the influence.

Alcoholism is Still Not a Direct OVI Defense

Alcohol addiction, despite all its medical recognition, cannot directly absolve an individual from responsibility if they choose to operate a vehicle while impaired. The primary reason is straightforward: getting behind the wheel while impaired is considered a conscious choice, even if the person is an addict. As such, claiming addiction as a direct defense to OVI cannot absolve the defendant from the charges.

This can be hard to hear if you’ve been struggling with addiction and are facing a DUI charge. But let’s consider a different medical condition. Let’s say you’re a star basketball player who breaks their leg in a game. Your doctor informs you that you shouldn’t play or put any weight on the leg for six weeks, but you ignore the doctor. You decide to play because of a strong desire. As a result, you fall, injure yourself more severely and possibly cause injury to another player.

In this case, you knew about your medical condition and consciously ignored it. Therefore, you would not be absolved from further injuring yourself and putting others at risk. Even though alcohol addiction is a recognized medical condition, driving while impaired is a conscious choice. The impairment, whether from a broken leg or alcohol addiction, doesn’t provide a valid defense if your impaired actions could hurt someone.

Addressing Addiction Can Reduce Negative Consequences

Alcohol addiction could become relevant in an OVI case during the mitigation and sentencing phase. If you can provide medical evidence of alcohol addiction, it might be taken into consideration for:

  • Determining Appropriate Penalties: Judges might opt for rehab over incarceration, emphasizing treatment and recovery.
  • Evaluating Probation Conditions: This can include mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, counseling, or other therapeutic interventions.
  • Mitigating Circumstances: While not a justification, addiction can provide context, allowing the court to understand the underlying causes of the defendant’s behavior.

The Drawbacks to Using Addiction as an OVI Defense

When confronted with a potential DUI conviction, a defendant may seek opportunities to improve their situation. And while anyone struggling with addiction should seek treatment, using alcohol dependency as a possible mitigating factor in an OVI case should be carefully evaluated by an experienced attorney.

There has been a lot of progress in accepting addiction as a medical condition. Courts are adopting more diversion programs, and treatment plans into sentencing considerations. However, there is still a lot of pressure on courts, prosecutors, and elected officials to punish drunk drivers harshly. You may receive public backlash if you attempt to use alcohol addiction to avoid responsibility.

Admitting you have an addiction as a defense could backfire. Judges won’t want to appear soft on these offenses, even if an addiction diagnosis can explain how you received your charges. However, using this diagnosis may present you as a recurring threat to public safety.

For instance, evidence of addiction may help explain and mitigate the harm of a first-offense OVI. But your admission may be detrimental to a second or subsequent DUI. You’ll unlikely garner the same sympathy from a judge or jury. They’ll have an easier time imposing penalties, like longer driver’s license suspensions and installing ignition interlock devices.

Get a Free Consult with a Columbus DUI Lawyer

Recognizing alcohol addiction in the context of OVI cases is not about providing an escape route for offenders. Instead, it’s about acknowledging the addiction problem and promoting rehabilitation over purely punitive measures. While addiction should never be an excuse for endangering others on the road, our legal system’s approach should be multifaceted. It must ensure the safety of the public and address the root causes of such behaviors.

If you or a loved one have been charged with OVI and believe alcohol abuse contributed to your situation, contact the experienced DUI legal team at LHA. We’re available 24/7 and have assisted countless people in situations like yours. Call (614) 500-3836 for a free and confidential OVI case evaluation.

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