In a recent high-profile story (and, of course, in California), a man is fighting charges of driving under the influence of caffeine.
Facts of the Case
On 5 August 2015, 36-year-old union glazier Joseph Schwab was stopped in Solano County, California—just an hour north of Silicon Valley—and subsequently charged with misdemeanor DUI of caffeine.
Fast forward 18 months later, and Schwab is preparing for trial. The Solano County district attorney’s office—headed by Chief Deputy District Attorney Sharon Henry—is resting its case on a blood test showing the presence of caffeine in Schwab’s system at the time a California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agent stopped Schwab, claiming that he was driving erratically and had cut her off. Even though Schwab’s breathalyzer test registered a .00 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level, he was arrested, booked into jail, and had his blood drawn.
The resulting toxicology report was negative for the most commonly tested drugs: benzodiazepines, cocaine, THC, opiates, methamphetamines, MDMA, oxycodone, and zolpidem. After a second toxicology test in Pennsylvania, Schwab’s blood sample came back positive for caffeine.
Are You Kidding?
Schwab’s attorney, Stacy Barrett, was as dumbfounded as her client. She filed a motion for dismissal because the original charges were not filed until ten months later—in June 2016. Should the assigned judge not grant the dismissal, Schwab will take his case to a jury on 11 January 2017.
Ms. Henry alleges that Schwab’s DUI charge is not based on the presence of caffeine, and she is conducting further investigation; however, his breathalyzer and toxicology screens were negative for any other “drug.” Barrett argues that if Henry had any evidence of another drug, she must turn it over based on the discovery rule of criminal proceedings.
Even long-time forensic expert toxicologist Jeffrey Zehnder stated that, in his 41 years in the field, he has never seen anyone prosecuted for having caffeine in his/her system. If such was the norm, then most American adults would be guilty.
Definition of Drugs under California Law
California’s vehicle code section 23152 (23152 VC) defines a drug as any substance—other than alcohol—which may affect someone’s nervous system, muscles, and/or brain to the point that the substance in question impairs the individual to the point where s/he can no longer drive like a sober person would under similar circumstances. Not unlike most state laws, drugs include illicit substances such as cocaine and methamphetamines, prescription drugs, and even over-the-counter drugs such as caffeine.
Even though caffeine frequently helps provide temporary alertness in many people, others who are not used to consuming it may suffer adverse side effects such as:
- High blood pressure
Thus, if caffeine does, in fact, affect one’s ability to drive, s/he could technically fall under the state’s definition of driving under the influence of caffeine.
With respect to Schwab’s case, the prosecution would have to prove that his alleged erratic driving was specifically a result of the caffeine—and nothing else. However, there have never been any studies demonstrating—or even suggesting—that caffeine impairs driving. In fact, a 2012 study of the effect of coffee on prolonged highway driving found that “one cup of caffeinated coffee (80 mg caffeine) significantly improves driving performance and reduces driver sleepiness.” Similarly, a 2013 Australian report in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported a 63 percent lower chance of automobile crashes among drivers who consumed coffee.
Thus, the Solana County district attorney’s case is rather moot as Schwab’s breathalyzer and toxicology screens came back negative for everything except caffeine. Understandably, Schwab cannot wait for his ordeal to conclude. Being arrested and charged with DUI is not only frustrating and ridiculous but is also damaging to one’s reputation. Schwab cannot wait for this case’s dismissal and vindication of his reputation.