Sleeping Va. Driver Convicted In Crash
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Paris Gebrkidan was loading her son's birthday presents into her car when a silver Honda Civic careered down the Alexandria street toward her. At the wheel was Brian Riley, who had been fighting a chronic sleep disorder and had taken the prescription drug Ambien. He was, by all accounts, asleep.
Riley's car plowed into Gebrkidan that January evening. Yesterday, an Alexandria judge convicted the 32-year-old salesman of driving under the influence of sleep medication -- the Ambien -- and of maiming in a crash so severe that Gebrkidan's leg had to be amputated below the knee. Riley faces up to six years in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 21.
The crash highlighted the increasing national problem of people sleepwalking and driving while under the influence of popular prescription sleep medications. A disoriented U.S. Rep. Patrick. J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) focused attention on the issue this year when he crashed his car near the Capitol after taking what he said were Ambien and Phenergan, a prescription drug for stomach inflammation.
Although a growing body of studies has linked Ambien with incidents including nocturnal eating and shoplifting, experts said the Alexandria case is unusual -- for the severity of Gebrkidan's injury and the seriousness of the felony charge. Riley had taken five times the recommended dosage, testimony showed. They said more such cases could result as Ambien soars in popularity. More than 24 million prescriptions were written for the drug in 2004.
"People should not take Ambien and drive, period," said Patrick Harding, supervisor of toxicology at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, which studied 187 people who drove under the drug's influence. "They acted like zombies. They were driving in the wrong direction, stopped in the middle of traffic, backing up traffic."
During the two-day trial, Riley's attorneys emphasized an unusual defense they called sleep-driving. They argued that Riley should not be held criminally liable because he was unconscious behind the wheel, and his actions were involuntary.
But prosecutors persuaded Circuit Court Judge John E. Kloch to convict Riley of driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, and maiming resulting from DWI, a felony. They argued that Riley was responsible for his actions.
"He didn't intend to hurt this lady, and he may not have even intended to drive," Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Molly Sullivan said in an interview yesterday. "But with his sleepwalking in the past and his abuse of sleeping pills, he was on notice that this might occur."
She added that the case "puts the public on notice of what can happen when you abuse prescription medication."
Harding said more defense attorneys are likely to try the sleep-driving argument. "It didn't have a name, and it wasn't raised as a defense in the past, but I think we will be seeing more of that in the future," Harding said.
Melissa Feltmann, a spokeswoman for Sanofi-Aventis, the French manufacturer of Ambien, declined to comment on the case but emphasized that the drug should be taken only with a prescription and at the prescribed dosage. Testimony at Riley's trial showed that he had no prescription for the Ambien he ingested before his car struck Gebrkidan.
"Ambien is safe and effective when used as a prescription for treatment of insomnia," Feltmann said. "You should not take it and get behind the wheel of a car."