In reality, police officers have very little training in detecting accurate levels of intoxication; there is no “inherent skill” to detect when someone is intoxicated. In fact, police officers are predisposed in a drunk driving investigation to “see” what they expect to see, disregarding any alternative explanations. Because of this, police officers have been known to mistakenly assume a driver is intoxicated, when in fact they suffer from diabetes or hypoglycemia.
How can diabetes and hypoglycemia affect field sobriety tests?
Diabetics experience hypoglycemia when their blood sugar levels are low. The symptoms of this condition include inability to balance, staggering, slurred speech, drowsiness, flushed face, disorientation, and impaired motor control. These symptoms are easy to confuse with that of a drunk driver. Since these symptoms are so similar to intoxication, a person experiencing them will most likely fail his/her field sobriety tests. This leads to diabetics experiencing hypoglycemia to be wrongfully arrested for drunk driving on countless occasions.
If an individual suffering from diabetes or hypoglycemia enters a state of ketoacidosis he/she may also exhibit what appear to be signs of intoxication. Ketoacidosis occurs when too many ketones are produced in the body. Similar to diabetes and hypoglycemia, the symptoms of ketoacidosis can appear similar to signs of alcohol or drug impairment. The symptoms include a flushed face, drowsiness, loss of energy, poor coordination, and stale breath which can be mistaken for the odor of an alcoholic beverage.
How can diabetes and hypoglycemia affect my BAC?
Breath tests are designed to measure Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) to show the amount of alcohol present in a person's bloodstream. The BAC device uses infrared beams of light that are absorbed by chemical compounds in the breath. These tests look specifically for ethyl alcohol, which is found in alcoholic beverages.
Since these tests measure chemical compounds in the breath (and not actual alcohol) the machines are programmed to assume that chemical compounds similar to ethyl alcohol are probably the result of consuming alcohol. There are actually thousands of compounds that can register as the type of alcohol consumed from drinking an alcoholic beverage.
Isopropyl alcohol commonly registers as ethyl alcohol on a breath test. Ketones cause the body to create isopropyl alcohol. A diabetic who has developed ketoacidosis or has ketones on his/her breath may give a high BAC reading even if they have not been drinking. This is because the breath testing device mistakes the isopropyl alcohol produced by the ketones for the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages.
How can my low-carb diet affect my BAC?
There are also self-imposed diets, such as high-protien/low-carbohydrate diets, that can adversely affect a breath test. When people significantly reduce their carbohydrate intake, their bodies will look to stored fat for energy. This causes the body to produce ketones for energy.
Like diabetics, individuals on low-carb diets will have ketones on their breath. When ketones are in the breath, the isopropyl alcohol detected by a breath test shows up the same as ethyl alcohol (what is actually found in alcoholic beverages).
Further, if an individual on a low-carb diet were to actually consume even a small amount of alcohol, then the BAC would be falsely elevated even more simply because of the keteones that are naturally produced by the body.
What does this mean for my DUI defense?
Until police become more aware of how medical conditions and diet restrictions can mimic intoxication and driving impairment, innocent people will likely face wrongful DUI charges. Judges have ruled that low blood sugar may not be a defense against negligent driving. However, it is still imperative to tell a DUI defense attorney if any of these situations may explain your unjust drunk driving charges, as it could help grant a dismissal of a DUI charge.
Lawrence Taylor “Drunk Driving Defense” 3d Edition.
“Hypoglycemia: Driving Under the Influence” in 8(1) Medical and Toxicological Information Review Sept. 2003.
Brick, “Diabetes, Breath Acetone and Breathalyzer Accuracy: A Case Study”, 9(1) Alcohol, Drugs and Driving (1993).