According to news reports online, on August 5, 2015, a Mr. Schwab (“the driver”), a 36-year-old union glazier, while driving home from work in Solano County, California was pulled over by an agent from the California department of alcoholic beverage control driving an unmarked vehicle. The agent said the driver was driving erratically and recklessly and had cut her off. She demanded that he submit to a roadside breathalyzer test which showed a 0.00% blood alcohol level. But a search of his car revealed ‘workout powders’ so, undeterred, she booked the driver into the county jail for the purposes of testing his blood.
The resulting toxicology report datedNovember 18, 2015 was negative for benzodiazepines, cocaine, opiates, THC, the muscle relaxant carisoprodol, methamphetamine, the prescription pain medication oxycodone, and the sedative zolpidem. The driver was released but his blood sample was forwarded to a Pennsylvania laboratory for further screening where the sole positive result was for caffeine. In June 2016, 10 months after incident, the driver was charged by the Solano County district attorney with misdemeanor driving under the influence of a drug.
The driver’s defense lawyer filed a motion for the case to be dismissed because of the ten-month interval between the incident and the charging. Having been served by the prosecution with only the caffeine positive results, she was quoted as saying “I’ve never seen this before…I’ve never even heard of it.”
Jeffrey Zehnder, said to be a renowned forensic toxicologist for over 40 years who frequently testifies in court cases simply said, “It’s really stupid. … There are no studies that demonstrate that driving is impaired by caffeine, and they don’t do the studies, because no one cares about caffeine.”
Within days of this story grabbing worldwide media attention as the first DUI caffeine case, the charges were dropped, the district attorney saying the testing was too limited. The driver continues to face charges for reckless driving.
The California vehicle code defines a ‘drug’ as any substance besides alcohol that could affect a person in a manner that would “impair, to an appreciable degree” his ability to drive normally. Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance found in many plants, including coffee beans and tea leaves. The US Food and Drug administration says about 90% of the world’s population ingests some form of caffeine with roughly 80% of the US population doing so daily.
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and while excessive consumption over time is linked to health problems, the fact that its main short term effect is increased alertness has rendered stopping for ‘a cup of coffee’ as one of the standard pieces of advice for drivers who have been at the wheel for over two hours or feeling fatigued or drowsy. Some states have even gone so far as to offer free coffee at their interstate highway rest stops.
Some journalists have cited this case as an example of what excessive bureaucratic zeal can do to curtail basic liberties. Forget the caffeine angle, they say. The lesson here is never cut off a ‘special agent’ in an unmarked car in California or you may in for some bureaucratic push-back.