DWI Case Alleges Impairment by Caffeine, Rather than Alcohol

Effects of caffeineThe New Jersey traffic offense of driving while intoxicated (DWI) is not limited to intoxication due to alcohol. The state can charge a driver with DWI based on the alleged presence of almost any substance that can cause impairment. A case currently pending in California demonstrates an unexpected example of this aspect of DWI law. The driver is facing DWI charges based on alleged impairment by caffeine. This type of DWI charge is probably possible under New Jersey’s DWI statute, although no reported court decisions specifically mention it. A bill currently pending in the New Jersey Legislature could prohibit drinking coffee while driving, although it would do so for reasons that are not directly related to DWI prevention.

New Jersey’s DWI statute establishes two types of DWI offenses. If a person drives with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or more, that is considered DWI per se. The other type of DWI offense involves operating a motor vehicle “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug.” It is possible for the state to charge someone with DWI even if their BAC was less than 0.08 percent or in the absence of any BAC evidence, but prosecutors tend to favor the use of BAC in order to prove guilt. In a 2010 decision, State v. Marquez, the New Jersey Supreme Court called BAC “the most concrete and important piece of evidence” in a DWI case.

The term “habit-producing drug” is generally construed to mean illegal drugs or prescription medications. It could hypothetically include caffeine, which is known to create both physical and psychological dependence. New Jersey appellate courts have mentioned caffeine in the context of DWI, but it does not appear that they have ever dealt with it as an alleged intoxicant. The Appellate Division considered a DWI case in 2011, State v. Driscoll, in which the defendant was convicted of DWI despite zero-percent BAC, in part based on poor performance on the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. The defendant had a prescription for Fioricet with codeine, which also contains caffeine. The court reversed her conviction. The court also cited caffeine as a possible complicating factor in HGN tests in a 2000 decision, State v. Doriguzzi.

In the currently pending California case, a police officer reportedly pulled the defendant over for weaving in traffic. The officer allegedly found various workout supplements, all legal, in the defendant’s vehicle, but no alcohol. She administered field sobriety tests and concluded that the driver was under the influence of something, but a blood test came out negative for everything except caffeine. The prosecutor is reportedly continuing to pursue a DWI charge, alleging that the defendant was under the influence of something else, besides caffeine, that was not part of the drug panel.

A pending bill in the New Jersey Legislature, A1908, could make it a traffic offense to drink coffee while driving. The bill relates to “distracted driving,” rather than DWI, but it is worth noting here because it could affect all New Jersey drivers. The bill would amend the existing statute to prohibit “any activity unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle,” which critics say could include simply drinking a beverage while driving.

If you are facing alleged DWI charges in a New Jersey court, DWI attorney Evan Levow can help you understand your rights and guide you through the court process. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case with a knowledgeable and experienced advocate, contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Driver Found Sleeping in His Car Acquitted of DWI After Judge Finds Prosecutors Failed to Prove He Intended to Drive, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 24, 2016

New Jersey, Other States Review Standards for “Drugged Driving” as Medical Marijuana Laws Take Effect, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, March 13, 2016

Medical Marijuana Patient Acquitted of DWI, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 5, 2015

Photo credit: Mikael Häggström (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.