Approximately ten percent of Americans are believed to have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects the body’s ability to produce or use insulin. Without treatment, people with diabetes may be unable to control their blood glucose levels. This can lead to a host of consequences including heart disease, kidney disease, loss of vision, nerve damage, and even death.
In addition to being potentially life-threatening, uncontrolled diabetes may also lead to a DUI arrest or conviction. The symptoms associated with uncontrolled diabetes can mimic the indicators of intoxication that law enforcement officers look for during a DUI investigation. Not only this, but even breath testing devices can return a “false positive” and indicate that a person with uncontrolled diabetes has alcohol in their systems when they do not.
Hypoglycemia Symptoms and DUI Signs of Impairment
During any California DUI investigation, law enforcement officers are trained to look for and document “signs of impairment.” Officers use these signs of impairment as evidence to support their conclusions that someone is driving under the influence when making an DUI arrest. A person with diabetes suffering from hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) can exhibit some of the same signs that a person under the influence of alcohol might exhibit, including:
- Confusion about one’s surroundings
- Sleepiness or lethargy
- Speech that is slurred
- Swaying while standing or inability to balance while walking
These conditions may cause the driver to perform the standardized field sobriety tests poorly. This, in turn, can provide even more evidence for an officer to place the driver under arrest for DUI. Although the national training materials used to educate officers about the detection and investigation of DUI cases encourages officers to ask whether the driver suffers from medical conditions like diabetes, not all officers take this important step during their investigations. Additionally, a driver may not even know that they suffer from conditions like diabetes.
Hyperglycemia Symptoms and the DUI Breath Tests
At the opposite end of the spectrum from hypoglycemia, diabetics who experience hyperglycemia (periods of elevated blood sugar levels) may also be mistaken for being under the influence. Another sign of impairment that officers look for when conducting a DUI investigation is an odor of alcohol coming from the driver’s person or breath. A diabetic driver who is hyperglycemic may have an odor on their breath that smells fruity. This can be mistaken for alcohol by law enforcement officers, especially if the officer is not aware of the driver’s medical condition.
It is not just human officers who can be fooled by mistaking hyperglycemia for alcohol impairment. In Type 2 diabetics, the body is unable to efficiently use its own insulin to break down glucose in the body for fuel. As a result, the body’s liver processes fat for fuel. This process causes the body to produce ketones. (Low-carb diets like the keto diet may also result in the production of ketones). Because the chemical composition of ketones is similar to ethyl alcohol, breath testing devices can mistake ketones for the presence of alcohol.
Prevailing in a California DUI Claim When Diabetic
If you are arrested and charged with DUI because the officer mistook your diabetes symptoms for signs of impairment, you may still be able to prevail in your case. Evidence of your diabetes diagnosis and your experience with managing your blood sugar levels may be relevant. In addition, the effectiveness of any medications or insulin you are taking and any recent documentation you may have concerning your blood sugar readings may help establish that the officer was not observing signs of alcohol impairment but rather symptoms of diabetes.
Breath tests are a common feature in many California DUI cases. They are, however, inherently unreliable. Despite advances in law enforcement technology, breath testing machines are still not able to effectively and reliably distinguish between isopropyl alcohol – the type of alcohol ketones most nearly approximate – and ethyl alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. Although a California DUI defense attorney cannot challenge the accuracy of breathalyzers in general, evidence may be introduced that the particular breathalyzer used in the arrest was faulty.
Advice for California Diabetics with Uncontrolled Blood Glucose
Whether a driver has Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, it is critical that the person monitor their blood sugar levels, take any insulin or medication as directed, and make and keep regular appointments with their doctor. This may help to reduce the number of hypoglycemic or hyperglycemic incidents and thereby reduce the risk of an erroneous DUI arrest or charge. More than this, these steps are essential to reducing the chance of nerve and kidney damage vision problems, and premature death. If one is stopped for “driving while diabetic” and is experiencing a severe hypo- or hyperglycemic event, informing the officer of your condition may help you obtain the emergency medical care you need.
What about the diabetic driver who is pulled over and is investigated for DUI but who is not experiencing a medical emergency or in immediate danger from high or low blood glucose levels? Drivers should remember that they do not need to answer any questions from law enforcement officers. Additionally, California drivers have no obligation to complete the field sobriety tests and may refuse to provide a pre-arrest, roadside breath sample. Absent objective indicia of diabetes (such as insulin and syringes or prescription medication) in your vehicle, informing the officer about one’s diabetes may not prevent an arrest for DUI.
Having said that, a person charged with a DUI never has to prove their innocence. However, an experienced DUI attorney may be able to develop a defense strategy in part on a person’s health condition such as diabetes, especially when the symptoms of intoxication and the conditions are indistinguishable.