diabetes & dwi

May 25, 2019

         As of 2015, the average American was 30 pounds overweight, increasing the risk of Type II diabetes throughout the nation. As a result of this national outbreak of obesity and diabetes, many legal practitioners are forced to address how these chronic medical conditions impact the application and enforcement of our national and state laws. Indeed, at any given time, between 15% and 20% of all drivers on American roads are diagnosed diabetics.

         One important aspect of DWI defense is understanding how diabetes can detrimentally impact your DWI case by leading to improper convictions of “observational DWIs,” as well as “per se” DWIs, based a breath test machine’s “false-positive” readings of a elevated B.A.C.

         A fundamental biological law governing diabetes concerns the necessity of insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, that allows cells to absorb sugar or glucose from the blood-stream. Normal people produce an amount of insulin sufficient for them to absorb proper amounts of glucose or sugar from food, without either overloading the cells with sugar, or allowing too much sugar to remain in the blood. The body has lots of subtle measures and countermeasures in place, designed by nature to ensure that this delicate balance can be maintained.

         When somebody is a diabetic, they aren’t producing enough insulin. Folks with Type-1 Diabetes have an auto-immune disorder that causes their immune system to attack the pancreas, such that it eventually stops producing insulin. Folks with Type-2 Diabetes, which is the most common form of diabetes, have two types of problems. They either have a pancreas that is producing too little or varied amounts of insulin, or they have cells that are unnaturally resistant to insulin (here, due to countless years of eating too much sugary or fatty foods, the body gradually develops this resistance in order to naturally reduce the uptake of glucose).

         As diabetics of all varieties know, their blood sugar levels may change on a day-to-day basis, or even throughout the course of a single day.  The symptoms of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar–which can rapidly manifest themselves without warning, consist of the following:

  • Profuse Sweating
  • Nervousness,
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Muscular Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Blurred vision
  • Slurring Voice
  • Droopy and bloodshot eyes

         Unfortunately, these symptoms mirror those that are exhibited by intoxicated persons. When a diabetic is driving their car, and they experience a rapid decline in blood sugar levels, they can swerve or get into accidents. Their illness can cause additional problems, though, because after such incidents they will often be suspected of being intoxicated. If they are given a Standardized Field Sobriety Test, they will often fail.

         When there’s insufficient insulin,  glucose levels in the blood start can rise dramatically, causing a condition known as hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar. When people have this, two things happen. First, the body’s cells become malnourished, causing them to draw on the body’s fat deposits for energy. When this happens, the body starts to produce an additional chemical called a ketone, or fatty acid, which helps the cells use fat. In addition to cellular uptake of fat, the body attempts to flush-out the excess glucose in the blood by inducing excessive thirstiness and frequent urination.

         Eventually, if the hyperglycemia is untreated, those ketones will reach dangerously high levels in the blood, causing a condition called Diabetic Ketoacidosis. The symptoms of Diabetic Ketoacidosis are the following:

  • Exhaustion and drowsiness
  • Dry or flushed skin
  • Nausea, and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty maintaining balance
  • Fruity odor on breath
  • Confusion

         This becomes problematic for a driver suspected of DWI, because many of these symptoms will prevent them from successfully passing the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, resulting in them possibly being charged with an observational DWI.

But that’s not all.

         High levels of ketones or fatty acids in the blood can also cause a diabetic (as well as people who don’t even have diabetes) to fail a number of machine-based breath tests. 

Here’s how:

         Long ago, scientists realized that the molecular compound called methyl has a tendency to absorb infrared light, such that you can tell how much methyl is in an object. This is done by flashing a beam ofinfrared light through the substance and seeing if the amount of infrared that’s refracted back is less than the amount initially applied. This process is called Infrared Spectroscopy. Methyl is present in a wide variety of chemicals and molecular compounds found throughout nature. Indeed, many scientists today frequently utilize infrared spectroscopy — by way of large astronomical telescopes — to measure the chemical compounds present in the atmosphere of different planets.

         Now, its important to note that one of the major compounds comprising ethanol (the kind of alcohol one can drink) is methyl. Government officials realized, early on, that since alcohol contains methyl, they could ascertain a person’s level of intoxication by measuring the amount of methyl in their breath samples. This is the basis of all modern breathalyzer and Alcotest machines. These machines shoot beams of infrared light into ampules of air captured from human breath samples, in order to see how much of the light is absorbed. By doing this, they hope to measure the amount of methyl in the bloodstream of a Defendant.

         The problem with this, though, is that high methyl levels aren’t only present in alcohol, but are present in a wide variety of other compounds as well, one of which are called ketones. As mentioned above, ketones are produced by the body in order to help cells utilize fat as an energy source, by way of a process called the Krebs Cycle. If ketone levels get too high, it can not only make a person sick, but cause them to get a false-reading or false-positive on breathalyzer tests, due to the fact that these tests aren’t really testing for alcohol, per se, but for methyl.

         If a person suffering from ketoacidosis is pulled over and subjected to a field sobriety test, or alcotest, and fails to get immediate medical treatment, they can go into shock, fall into a coma and possibly die. This is why, if you have diabetes and are pulled over by the police, you must immediately inform them of your condition. Failure to do so not only jeopardizes your driving record, but could also jeopardize your life.

         Interestingly, diabetics aren’t the only ones who suffer from ketoacidosis. Pregnant women, people fasting for health or religious reasons, or people on a low-carb diet, like the Atkins Diet, are also at high risk.

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