Archive for March 25th, 2019

Maine Supreme Court Affirms DUI Conviction Even Though Science Suggests Defendant was Involuntarily Intoxicated

Monday, March 25th, 2019

Apparently, some high courts in this country don’t care whether science can show a person is innocent.

Earlier this month, the Maine Supreme Court denied the appeal of a man who sought to introduce the testimony of a medical expert at trial that he suffers from auto-brewery syndrome.

Believe it or not, there is a rare medical condition that causes a person to “brew” alcohol within their body causing them to become intoxicated even though they haven’t had a sip of actual alcohol; hence the name, “auto-brewery syndrome.”

If you know how beer is made, you’ll know that yeast is added to grain extract (which is essentially sugar). When the yeast eats the sugar, it releases carbon dioxide (which creates the carbonation in beer) and alcohol (which gives beer its intoxicating effects). This process is known as fermentation. A person with auto-brewery syndrome produces unusually high levels of yeast in their gastrointestinal tract which, in turns, eats the sugars that a person ingests creating both carbon dioxide and alcohol in the person’s system even though they haven’t actually ingested any alcohol. In some instances of auto-brewery syndrome, the production of alcohol is so much that it can actually cause a person to become legally intoxicated!

I think you can see where I’m going with this. John Burbank claimed to be such a person afflicted with this rare disorder when he was arrested on suspicion of a DUI in 2016 because his blood alcohol content was 0.31 percent, almost four times the legal limit. In preparation for trial, Burbank sought to introduce an expert who would have testified that he suffered from this condition and that the condition caused him to become intoxicated through no fault of his own.

The trial court judge, however, denied the introduction of Burbank’s expert. And without the expert’s testimony, Burbank opted to plead no contest and filed an appeal challenging the denial of the expert’s testimony.

The Maine Supreme Court concluded that the trial court was correct in not allowing the expert to testify, thus affirming Burbank’s DUI conviction.

The Maine Supreme Court justified its conclusion by saying that, although the expert was a P.h.D. in toxicology and physiology, she was merely basing her opinions several articles regarding the condition, but that she, herself, had not worked directly with cases of auto-brewery syndrome or with Burbank and his condition.  Additionally, the court pointed out, that Burbank’s symptoms were different than those who were the subjects of the articles that the expert was relying on.

Bear in mind that auto-brewery syndrome is extremely rare with far less available research and knowledge about it than many other conditions.

The court went on to say that the denial of the expert’s testimony did not amount to a denial of Burbank’s constitutional right to present a defense because, according to the justices, the denial was a “reasonable restriction.”

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an unreasonable restriction to me. In law, for expert testimony to be admissible, it must be relevant and reliable. It is relevant because it could show that Burbank did not choose to become intoxicated when he drove. The law should not and, in most cases, does not punish people for things they cannot control. The law should only punish people who, through voluntariness and free will, engage in criminal conduct. And it is reliable because, while the expert may not have specific knowledge as to Burbank’s auto-brewery syndrome, it is nonetheless a legitimate and recognized medical condition, albeit with little research on it because of its rarity. People with rare conditions should not be disadvantaged and punished merely because their condition is rare, which is exactly what the Maine Supreme Court is doing.

What’s more, the concurring justice concluded that the defense of involuntary intoxication should not be allowed in DUI cases because “it may invite many ‘I didn’t know there was vodka in my orange juice’ or similar defenses to [DUI]…charges.”

So what?! So what if it invites future defenses? If it is a plausible defense to a crime for which the government can take away someone’s freedom, a defendant should be allowed to assert it. It’s their life on the line, not the judges. And pardon me, but I thought it was the jury’s job to determine if a defense is true or not. If the jury had heard the expert testimony, but still concluded that Burbank did drink and drive, then so be it. At least he was provided the opportunity to defend himself.  

What’s next? Courts not allowing an alibi defense because it could invite many “I was somewhere else” defenses?

[October 28, 2019]

Another case of auto-brewery syndrome has appeared in the news, and this time, the courts took it seriously. Read about it more here: https://ktla.com/2019/10/25/north-carolina-man-pulled-over-for-dui-said-he-hadnt-been-drinking-researchers-found-his-body-produced-alcohol/

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