A DUI charge for being under the influence..... of caffeine?
Many people use caffeine to help them wake up in the morning and stay alert throughout the day. Popular methods of ingesting this substance include drinking coffee, energy drinks, tea, or soda. Caffeine is a "central nervous system stimulant" and is the "most popular drug in the world, consumed by up to 90% of people." A recent DUI case in California raised a new question about the use of caffeine while operating a motor vehicle. Can you be arrested and charged with driving under the influence if the only drug found in your system is caffeine?
This unusual case began in August 2015 when 36-year old Joseph Schwab was pulled over in Fairfield, California while on his way home from work. He was stopped after he allegedly was seen driving erratically and cut off an agent from California's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The agent, who was driving in an unmarked vehicle, then pulled him over. According to the District Attorney's office for Solano County, the agent was suspected that Schwab was under the influence because of his "erratic and reckless driving, his demeanor at the time of the traffic stop, and his performance on a number of field sobriety tests." He took a breath test which showed he did not have any alcohol in his system but he was still arrested and booked into the county jail. At the jail he had his blood taken and, according to The Guardian, the "resulting toxicology report came back negative for benzodiazepines, cocaine, opiates, THC, carisoprodol (a muscle relaxant), methamphetamine/MDMA, oxycodone, and zolpidem." The sample was tested again and again, no illegal drugs were found. It did come back positive for one legal substance though -- caffeine.
Charges against Schwab were not filed until nearly ten months later, in June of 2016. His attorney filed a motion to dismiss the charges for lack of a speedy trial. The hearing for the motion was set for January 3rd and Schwab's trial was set for January 11th. However, the case did not end up moving past the end of 2016. The district attorney's office initially defended the charge to various news outlets and stated in a press release that "the DUI Unit filed the DUI charge based upon the observations and opinion of the officer that the defendant was under the influence of a combination of substances, including a stimulant and a depressant." However, the charges were ultimately dismissed on December 28, 2016. According to the DA's office press release, this was done because "without a confirmatory test of the specific drug in the defendant's system that impaired his ability to drive, we do not believe we can prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt." According to KCRA 3, an attorney for the DA's office stated that she "still believes some drug other than caffeine was in Schwab's system, but that testing didn't reveal it."
Schwab is still facing a reckless driving charge but his attorney has also asked that this charge be dismissed.
Having represented people accused of driving under the influence for the past 15 years in the greater Seattle area, I have seen my fair share of unique blood and breath test cases. These include times where the breath test was only a fraction of the legal limit and blood results that show only a therapeutic level of prescribed medications. But a caffeine only DUI? This is a first (and hopefully last). It appears to be an over-zealous prosecutor is one to blame.
Washington DUI penalties are some of the strongest in the nation. If you or someone you know are accused of a DUI, feel free to contact me to discuss your situation and schedule a free initial consultation.