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California Charges Man With Caffeine DUI

man charged with caffeine DUI

Story at-a-glance -

  • An officer arrested a man for “erratic, reckless” driving and arrested him on a DUI charge, but without alcohol or drugs in his system; he was cited for being under the influence of caffeine
  • California law says a drug is any substance that may effectively “impair, to an appreciable degree” someone’s ability to drive, so prosecutors had to prove it was “impaired driving” specifically caused by the caffeine
  • Synthetic cannabinoids like spice, performance-enhancing drugs like steroids and designer stimulants like bath salts are rarely tested in DUI blood tests, and rarely show up even if they are tested
  • The prosecutor in the case said she’d like more substances to be tested in relation to their ability to impair someone’s driving, because some might show up on radar if there were an actual screen for them

By Dr. Mercola

Some cases are interesting, and some are downright weird. Reports of a man arrested on charges of driving under the influence of caffeine definitely fall into the second category.

It started on August 5, 2015, when Joseph Schwab was driving home from work and got pulled over in Fairfield, California, by Agent Ott from the California department of alcoholic beverage control, who was driving an unmarked vehicle.

The agent said she was suspicious because Schwab was "weaving in and out of traffic, almost causing several collisions," exhibiting "erratic and reckless driving," including cutting her off in traffic. Schwab was booked on a DUI charge, more specifically, driving under the influence of caffeine.

Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams said Schwab "seemed very amped up, very agitated, very combative and she thought he was under the influence of something."1 She added that they were sure Schwab was on something because of the officer's statement.

When the 36-year-old union glazier worker was booked into the Solano County Jail and subsequently underwent "several field sobriety tests," his pupils were dilated, but nothing showed up in his blood screenings but caffeine.

"I was 100 percent confident that I was not under the influence of anything," Schwab said.2 Nevertheless, he was charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence of a drug.

Schwab's defense attorney, Stacey Barrett, said she'd never seen such a thing, and never heard of it, either. "I actually consulted with the other attorneys in my office to make sure that I wasn't missing something."3

How Can You Charge Somebody With Driving Under the Influence of Caffeine?

Here's the odd part — one of them anyway: Schwab's breathalyzer test showed a 0.00 percent blood alcohol level.

His blood was drawn voluntarily at the county jail, but the resulting toxicology report was negative for the usual suspects: cocaine, benzodiazepines, opiates, THC, carisoprodol (a muscle relaxant), oxycodone, zolpidem and methamphetamine/MDMA.

What they did find was caffeine. Flummoxed, they tried testing again, Macedonia Online reported:

"The sample was screened a second time by a laboratory in Pennsylvania, according to documents provided to [The] Guardian, where the sole positive result was for caffeine — a substance likely coursing through the veins of many drivers on the road at any given time."4

Another oddity: Schwab wasn't actually charged for 10 months. The initial arrest took place in August, and formal charges weren't filed until the following May.

The initial charge stuck because "drug tests don't catch all drugs." According to chief deputy district attorney Sharon Henry, "The charge of driving under the influence is not based upon the presence of caffeine in his system."5

Jeffrey Zehnder, a forensic toxicologist who heard about the case through Barrett, said that in his 41 years on the job, he'd never seen someone prosecuted on a DUI from caffeine charge.

"It's really stupid … If that's the case, then they better come and arrest me," Zehnder joked. "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."6 

Zehnder said the prosecutor's case was problematic because she "would have to show that impaired driving was specifically caused by the caffeine and not any other circumstances."7 Schwab and his attorney filed a motion for the charges to be dismissed, citing the fact that driving under the influence of caffeine is not a crime.

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Charges Dropped

Yahoo News commented that according to California law, a drug is defined as any substance that may effectively "impair, to an appreciable degree," someone's ability to drive and added, "How the state might attempt to argue caffeine did that to Schwab, we are not sure."8

After chatting with both forensic toxicologists and her top investigators, Abrams felt that proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt was a long shot.

Finally, after 16 months and while Schwab and his attorneys were gearing up for a jury trial set for January 2017, the charges were dropped. So, at the eleventh hour, Abrams explained to KCRA News:

"This is a case without a blood result, so it makes it a very difficult challenge to prove in court … After further consideration, without a confirmatory test of the specific drug in the defendant's system that impaired his ability to drive, we do not believe we can prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt …"9

CNN noted:

"The DA's office said forensic lab experts claim it was 'highly likely the defendant was under the influence of a drug,' but since they have no way to prove it beyond reasonable doubt, Schwab's off the hook."10

The misdemeanor reckless driving charges, however, stuck. Today, Schwab says he's hurting, both financially and professionally, and feels his reputation has been damaged.

He said the arrest made him look "like I was undependable, and when you tell this kind of story to someone they naturally are not going to believe it … I want the charges to be dismissed and my name to be cleared."11

Extenuating Circumstances: More to the Story

While drug tests don't catch everything, some things might show up on radar if there were an actual screen for it, according to forensic toxicologist Edwin Smith. "Synthetic cannabinoids like spice, performance enhancing drugs like steroids and designer stimulants like bath salts are rarely tested in DUI blood tests."12

Smith thinks that if anything, caffeine helps people perform better, including driving. "Very few, if any, of those are having problems functioning in a task like driving," he commented. "Most are probably doing it as well, and potentially even better than they would do without it."13

Abrams said she really wished there were a way to test those and other substances (drugs), "because then we would know what was in his system."14

Something many of the reports didn't mention was that there were some suspicious-looking items in Schwab's car. They were workout supplements, including powders which, to officers at the scene, must have seemed an open-and-shut case, a smoking gun. But all of them ended up being legal.

Caffeinated Coffee Has Numerous Health Benefits

NBC News15 weighed in on the story, saying that consuming a seemingly innocent pick-me-up like caffeine would result in a boatload of arrests, because 54 percent of Americans over age 18 drink coffee daily, and the average consumption is 3.1 cups of coffee a day.16

As much as the majority of Americans love it and can't do without it, many are unaware of studies indicating that drinking four or more cups a day can lower your risk of colon cancer recurrence and death by 52 percent, and drinking two to three cups every day lowers your cancer risk by 31 percent.17

Caffeinated soda doesn't offer the same benefit. Studies also link coffee with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, a further advantage because this condition can "up" your risk of colon cancer and other chronic diseases.18

Experts say this may be because compounds in coffee positively affect the same pathways. The New York Times19 referred to an extensive 36-study review on coffee consumption and how it affects cardiovascular disease.

They noted that people who drank a moderate amount of coffee — three to five cups a day — had the lowest risk. Interestingly, people who consumed five or more cups a day had no higher risk than those who consumed none.20 Additionally:

"A meta-analysis published in 2007 found that increasing coffee consumption by two cups a day was associated with a lower relative risk of liver cancer by more than 40 percent. Two more recent studies confirmed these findings.

Results from meta-analyses looking at prostate cancer found that in the higher-quality studies, coffee consumption was not associated with negative outcomes."21

Caffeine: Unlikely to Impair Driving

Asked if caffeine would impair someone's driving capability, NBC medical contributor Dr. John Torres says it wouldn't. "Studies have shown that caffeine actually helps one's driving abilities.

The only way that it might have an effect is if a person overdoses on caffeine or uses it to cover fatigue and then it wears off."22 Torres passed along a short list of little-known coffee facts:

Light roast contains more caffeine than dark roasts. Comparing beans, light roasts simply retain more caffeine because the beans are exposed to cooler temperatures than dark blends in the roasting process. Drinkers don't notice that much of a difference, but there are other ways to reduce caffeine, if that's what you'd prefer.

If you want to ingest less caffeine, you might try switching to cold-brew coffees, or there's always decaf. (If you choose to drink decaffeinated coffee, be sure to choose one that is decaffeinated using carbon dioxide or Swiss water methods, the only decaffeination methods allowed in organic coffee).

Caffeine may have more impact in the afternoon. Believe it or not, grabbing a cup of coffee as the first thing on your morning agenda may not have the positive effect you think it does because of your cortisol level, which peaks 20 to 30 minutes after you get up.

High levels of cortisol and high volumes of caffeine can actually lower the caffeine's effectiveness over time. It might be a difficult change of habit, but drinking your first cup midday instead may have a greater impact.

Caffeine may improve your athletic performance. Research indicates caffeine enhances athletic capacity and endurance. How? Caffeine directly effects muscle at the metabolic level to burn more fat, because it's used as an energy source, Torres said. This gives you an energy boost as well as the "want" to get your work out in.

As cited earlier, too much caffeine intake can diminish your performance. Try drinking a cup about an hour before working out since it takes time for your body to metabolize the caffeine. Moreover, coffee is also a natural laxative, so drinking too many cups might cause problems you weren't expecting.

Caffeine gives your brain a temporary boost. In a very real sense, caffeine goes to your brain, quickly and positively. Clinical studies even show that caffeine can give you an upsurge in focus and concentration. As a natural stimulant, moderate caffeine consumption can increase alertness.

How to Listen to Your Body and Drink Coffee (Black)

Nearly every coffee drinker has experienced adverse effects of too much caffeine, such as jitteriness and irritability, which is unpleasant for virtually everyone. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and cut back if you notice you're feeling jangly and edgy. The Times article notes:

"If you drink too much, you may experience common symptoms like restlessness, [irritability] and an upset stomach. For others, more serious side effects can include a fast or irregular heartbeat, anxiety and panic attacks. The key, Torres says, is moderation to get the benefits of caffeine without the side effects."23

If you're the type who likes "a little coffee with your creamer," you'll be interested to know that creamers aren't what they're cracked up to be. Non-dairy creamers (not to mention packets of toxic sugar substitutes) are offered at restaurants and churches, and are in many peoples' refrigerators at home, with options that come in liquids and powder form, plus "sugar-free" options.

You know there is a down side, and there is: Ingredients lists usually include sodium caseinate, an "anti-nutrient" thickener and whitening agent that essentially squelches any nutritional content (not that there's much to speak of in non-dairy creamer). Dipotassium phosphate is used as an anti-coagulant, and it's used in fertilizers. Consumption has been shown to cause vomiting and diarrhea.

If you want to know how to get the best from your coffee, drink it black, with no toxic sugar (which could initiate insulin resistance), and possibly more crucial than anything else, without chemical-laced sugar substitutes such as Splenda, aka sucralose, aspartame or saccharine.

Ideally, select only coffee beans that are certified organic and, whenever possible, purchase sustainable "shade-grown" coffee to help prevent the continued destruction of our tropical rain forests and the birds that inhabit them.