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Diabetes as a Defense to DUI

man in a house arrest

Diabetes as a defense to DUI is debated among criminal attorneys in Broward. In short, Diabetes is a group of diseases with one thing in common — a problem with insulin. The problem could be that your body doesn’t make any insulin, it doesn’t make enough insulin, or it doesn’t use insulin properly. Over 16 million people in the United States suffer from Type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes and that number is growing rapidly.

Insulin is a hormone secreted by your pancreas. It’s a key part of the way your body processes the food you eat because it helps maintain the proper level of a sugar (glucose) in your blood. Glucose is your body’s fuel. Cells use it to produce energy to grow and function.

Diabetes can lead to serious problems such as blindness, impotence, loss of limbs, and death. Unfortunately, the incidence of diabetes is growing rapidly in the United States and a number of other countries.

Actually, it has been widely reported that drinking one or two alcoholic beverages per day is good for diabetics. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to see hypoglycemia and diabetes in connection with driving errors and accidents on today’s roads, but even more frequently are unwarranted DUI and DWI arrests stemming from diabetic symptoms that mimic those of a drunk driver.

Hypoglycemia occurs in the human body where there are abnormally low levels of blood glucose (blood sugar), usually under 60 mg/dl. Diabetes occurs when the blood sugar level is greater than 120 mg/dl and there is a total absence of insulin. Insulin, regulated by your pancreas, is a necessary hormone needed for digestion and blood glucose balance. If you have a normal metabolism, your blood glucose level generally will be between 70 and 120 mg/dl.

Is all of this significant? Hypoglycemic or diabetic symptoms can sometimes be confused with those of someone who is under the influence of alcohol. Though most commonly experienced by a hypoglycemic or diabetic, these symptoms can also occur in non-diabetic individuals if they have not eaten within twenty-four hours or are on a low-carbohydrate diet. A diabetic undergoing a breathalyzer test can have a false assessment due to the chemical changes in their body.

When a diabetic experiences a hypoglycemic attack, their bodily symptoms may include anxiety, hunger, rapid heartbeat, nausea, sweating, and tremors. Symptoms that affect the central nervous system could include confusion, delayed reflexes, headache, light-headedness, loss of consciousness, seizures, and slurred speech. Unfortunately, most people who experience hypoglycemic episodes while driving are unaware of how serious their symptoms really are and are putting themselves in danger.

Four possible reasons why diabetic symptoms can be deceptive to police officers during a DUI investigation, causing them to believe a driver is intoxicated due to alcohol use are:

(1) If a diabetic’s blood sugar rises to 250 mg/dl or more, their body is not able to utilize any carbohydrates for energy. Their body will begin to compensate and start to burn stored fat for energy, which produces ketones. This may cause drowsiness, thirst, lost of appetite, rapid heartbeat, labored breathing, and a flushed face (flushed face is a common sign that police officers look for when evaluating a subject). This phenomenon is called “diabetic ketoacidosis;”

(2) During a diabetic ketoacidosis state, ketones and acetones on the breath will cause a unique bad breath that is often confused with breath alcohol odor (another common DUI “symptom”);

(3) Presence of acetones on the breath is a common cause of an elevated or false breath test reading of blood alcohol level. A study conducted in 1988 found that acetone levels could produce a breath test result of .06%, just under the legal limit of .08%. (Mormann, Olsen, Sakshaug, and Morland; Measurement of Ethanol by Alkomat Breath Analyzer; Chemical Specificity and the Influence of Lung Function, Breath Technique and Environmental Temperature, 25 Blutalkohol 153); and

(4) As a final point, in any DUI case where the accused is a diabetic, any projection of the blood alcohol level backwards to the point of arrest may be unreliable, as insulin naturally increases the rate at which alcohol oxidizes, or burns off, within the body.

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