Physical Disabilities That Can Be Mistaken for Intoxication

When a police officer stops someone under suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI), the officer watches the person for signs of intoxication. If the driver refuses to take a breathalyzer test, the only basis for a DUI arrest might be the police officer’s observations of signs of intoxication.

Signs of intoxication often cited by police officers when making a DUI arrest include:

  • An odor of alcohol emitting from the person or vehicle
  • Slurred speech
  • The person has trouble and fumbles when trying to take out their driver’s license and insurance information
  • Incoherent speech
  • Bloodshot or watery eyes
  • Poor driving behaviors, such as weaving, driving too slowly, using turn signals incorrectly, stopping at green lights, etc.
  • Falling over while standing up
  • Poor coordination and motor skills
  • Slow verbal responses when asked questions 
  • Telling different stories when answering questions 
  • Stumbling when exiting the vehicle
  • Disorientation or confusion 
  • Difficulty staying awake or holding up their head

If the police officer observes any of the above signs of intoxication, the officer will likely arrest the person for DUI and take them to jail. However, there could be other reasons a person displays the signs of intoxication. For example, physical disabilities and medical conditions may include some of the above symptoms. Therefore, a person with pre-existing medical conditions that cause signs that mimic intoxication could be unjustly arrested and detained. 

Medical Conditions and Physical Disabilities That Could Be Mistaken for Intoxication

Multiple physical disabilities and health conditions impact a person’s ability to walk a straight line, speak clearly, or maintain balance. As a result, the person may “fail” DUI field sobriety tests. Common physical disabilities and medical conditions that could cause a police officer to believe the person is intoxicated include, but are not limited to:

Traumatic Brain Injuries 

For some individuals, the symptoms of traumatic brain injuries remain for months or years after the brain injury. Some people may experience lifelong symptoms of brain injury. 

A person could experience speech, coordination, balance, and memory problems. While people who know the person are familiar with how the person normally behaves because of the brain injury, a police officer could mistakenly believe the person is intoxicated.

Degenerative and Neurological Disorders 

Numerous degenerative disorders impact a person’s coordination, speech, cognitive ability, and memory. During the early stages of these diseases, a person may be able to drive, but they could experience periods of heightened symptoms. 

Examples of neurological or degenerative disorders that could mimic intoxication include:

  • Dementia
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Ataxia
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Korsakoff syndrome
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Parkinson disease
  • Myasthenia Gravis

An undiagnosed brain tumor could cause a person to experience symptoms that mimic intoxication. Additionally, a person could have any one of numerous disorders or diseases that they are unaware of at the time of a DUI arrest. 

Diabetes

A person with diabetes may experience periods of extremely low blood sugar levels. When a person’s blood sugar level falls too low, the person could experience dizziness, disorientation, slurred speech, and irritability. A police officer could mistake these symptoms as intoxication.

Additionally, a person with diabetes may have extremely high levels of ketones in their breath. High levels of ketones can cause a false positive on a breath test.

Epilepsy 

A person with epilepsy may experience a seizure without warning. Epilepsy may not always cause seizures. A person may appear to be confused, have trouble speaking, be unsteady on their feet, or have trouble focusing. A police officer who stops a person who is experiencing a seizure or just experienced a seizure might believe the person is drunk.

How Could a Medical Condition or Physical Disability Cause You to Fail a DUI Field Sobriety Test?

It may be difficult to believe that a police officer could mistake a person’s medical condition for intoxication. However, standardized and non-standardized field sobriety tests measure a person’s cognitive and physical abilities. Because many physical disabilities, illnesses, and health conditions impair physical and cognitive abilities, a police officer may not be able to distinguish between intoxication and a medical condition.

The standardized field sobriety tests approved by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) are:

  • One-leg stand test
  • Walk and turn test
  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test

In addition to the standardized field sobriety tests, many police officers use unofficial field sobriety tests to look for signs of intoxication. Some of those tests include, but might not be limited to:

  • Finger-to-nose test 
  • Rhomberg balance test
  • Hand pat test
  • Finger count test

Field sobriety tests measure your ability to perform specific tasks. While you perform the tasks, the police officer looks for signs that you are intoxicated. However, many of these tasks are the same tasks that could be impaired or affected by an illness or medical condition. Therefore, your inability to perform the tasks might stem from your health condition, instead of alcohol. 

Things that a police officer looks for when administering field sobriety tests include:

  • Involuntary tremors and muscle tone that is too limp or overly rigid
  • Inability to follow instructions or follow a set of instructions in the correct order
  • Performing tasks very slowly
  • Making inappropriate or confusing comments
  • Inability to stand still
  • Swaying back and forth
  • Being unsteady on your feet and stumbling
  • Slurring your words and having difficulty translating thoughts into spoken words

The issue is that these “clues” of intoxication can be caused by numerous health conditions. Therefore, the field sobriety tests are inaccurate and invalid. However, a police officer has no way of knowing this fact during a DUI investigation on the side of the road. To the police officer, the person appears intoxicated. Therefore, the officer arrests the person for driving under the influence without conducting any further investigation.

Health Conditions Can Affect a Breathalyzer Test

In addition to affecting field sobriety tests, some health conditions could affect a breathalyzer test. These conditions could result in a “false positive” on a DUI breath test even though the person does not have any alcohol in their system.

Health conditions that could impact a breathalyzer test include:

Digestive Disorders

Digestive disorders such as acid reflux, hiatal hernia, heartburn, Gut fermentation syndrome (auto-brewery syndrome), and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) can “trick” the breathalyzer into thinking that you are intoxicated. Instead of picking up residual mouth alcohol from deep lung air, the test detects stomach contents that flowed back up into the esophagus. 

Conditions That Affect Blood Sugar

Several conditions that affect blood sugar can cause incorrect breathalyzer results. Conditions include diabetes, high-protein diets, hypoglycemia, and fasting. 

Carbohydrates in the food we eat break down into sugars, including glucose. Glucose is the primary energy source our bodies use. However, if we do not eat enough carbohydrates to produce the glucose our bodies need, our bodies use fat stores for energy.

The fat is broken down into chemicals, including isopropyl alcohol and ketones. Excess ketones and isopropyl alcohol exit the body through your breath and urine. People with diabetes or hypoglycemia can also have high levels of ketones. 

Even though breathalyzer manufacturers claim that their machines can differentiate ethyl alcohol found in alcoholic beverages and isopropyl alcohol, people with excess ketones can receive false “positives” on breathalyzer tests.

Medications 

Some medications can affect the results of a breathalyzer test. If you take these medications for a health condition, the results of a breathalyzer test could indicate you are intoxicated even though you have not consumed any alcohol.

Medications that could give a false “positive” on a breathalyzer test include:

  • Asthma inhalers can dispense large amounts of alcohol in the lungs
  • Cough and cold medications that contain alcohol 
  • Medications to relieve pain from cold sores, toothaches, and canker sores often contain high amounts of alcohol

If a breathalyzer test or other chemical test shows you have a high blood alcohol content (BAC) when you did not consume alcohol, you should contact a DUI defense lawyer immediately to challenge the results. 

What Should You Do if You Have a Medical Condition That Could Be Misinterpreted as Intoxication?

Wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace that notifies officers of your medical condition could be helpful during a DUI stop. Notify the officer of your medical condition and request medical assistance. If you begin to experience symptoms that impair your ability to drive or feel unwell, pull over to a safe location and call 911. 

Even though you tell a police officer you have a medical condition that could be causing symptoms that mimic intoxication, the officer may still arrest you for driving under the influence. Do not resist arrest as that could result in additional charges. Instead, when you arrive at the jail, make another request for medical attention. Also, invoke your right to remain silent and request to speak with an attorney.

With an attorney’s assistance, you can fight the DUI charges. Your attorney helps you develop a defense based on your medical records, expert opinions, research, witness statements, and scientific evidence. A DUI arrest is not a conviction. If you have a medical condition or physical disability, do not plead guilty to a DUI charge without consulting a DUI defense attorney.

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