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People's Law Guide


DUI Arrests & Diabetes


When diagnosed with Type - I insulin dependent diabetes weeks after my 32nd birthday, a diabetes nurse educator "showed me the ropes" about injecting myself with a syringe, monitoring my blood sugar levels, and the making me aware of the importance of preventing my glucose levels from dropping too low. She explained that hypoglycemic reactions must be responded to with urgency. Failing to take prompt action can cause tiredness, mimic the symptoms of alcohol or drug abuse, and may lead to unconsciousness and even cause lapsing into a coma.

Fortunately, most of us with diabetes can usually sense when my blood sugar levels have fallen to unsafe levels. From time to time, however, routine monitoring of blood sugar levels yields a surprise - that our blood sugar level is lower than ideal. Too many people with diabetes don't test their glucose levels frequently enough. Also, not all of us living with diabetes are always aware when our blood sugar levels have declined to unsafe levels. Though we should know better than driving without having a canned soft drink inside the glove box or a front seat console, even those of us with hypoglycemia or diabetes who strive to be "conscientious" can find ourselves feeling "low" as traffic jams or distant highway exits delay our having accessibility to sugary drinks when we need them badly.

These "slip ups" endanger the safety of others and ourselves, and can confuse police officers into believing we are drunk or high. Though nobody knows how many people with hypoglycemia or diabetes are arrested on criminal DUI charges, there's no doubt that this occurs. Nearly 8% of the U.S. Population, or 24 million people, have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. A staggering 25% of those with diabetes, almost 6 million people, don't know they have the disease, the Association reports. Another 57 million Americans have "pre-diabetes," a stage when blood sugar levels are abnormally high but not yet high enough to be classified as having Type-II adult onset diabetes, the Association finds.

When someone in the midst of a low blood sugar reaction is handcuffed, placed in the backseat of a squad car or left in a jail cell, any of these outcomes can occur:

  • Even someone who has had nothing at all to drink will have a "fruity" breath odor induced by being in a hypoglycemia state. An easily rectified but hard to detect medical emergency can go untreated while a law enforcement officer remains unaware that drugs or alcohol are not to blame for the person just arrested being confused and "sleeping it off" or seeming to be "out of it." Without swallowing sugar or being administered glucose intravenously, death can result.
  • If sugar levels rebound without intervention and a medical crises is averted, police officers will assume the person in their custody is "just another" DUI suspect.

For the millions who don't yet know they suffer from diabetes, symptoms associated with high blood sugar levels (a condition opposite of that suffered by those experiencing hypoglycemia, can also create the appearance of having ingested drugs or excess alcohol.

Skilled doctors, nurses and paramedics, despite years of experience, note how difficult it is to determine when someone's behavior is caused by drugs, alcohol or from a hypoglycemic reaction. Very few police departments provide their officers with training about medical conditions which can cause motorists to appear to be inebriated or high.

Only a few criminal defense attorneys are knowledgeable of how diabetes, hypoglycemia or other medical conditions - including many ailments never previously diagnosed in the driver arrested on a DUI charge - can prompt a police officer into suspecting someone is "buzzed." Few DUI defense lawyers are aware of the type of blood test which can confirm that someone had experienced poorly controlled blood sugar levels over the prior weeks. Also, it's the rare DUI defense practitioner who is aware how vision limitations caused by diabetes-related retinopothy or how neuropathic complications can impair one's ability to perform well on walk the line drills and other coordination tests administered to persons suspected of being "DUI."

A criminal conviction on DUI charges has serious consequences. Here in Florida, for example, persons who plead No Contest to a DUI offense or are found guilty of these crimes are not permitted to seal their criminal records. A DUI conviction remains on one's criminal record for life! Wishing to bring the unpleasant experience of being up against the criminal justice system to a quick close, lots of people don't realize the impact of a DUI conviction stretches far beyond paying a fine, being inconvenienced by a temporary loss of driving privileges or incurring the indignities of being placed on probation.

Employers routinely conduct criminal background checks on persons currently working for them; not just on those seeking to be hired. Even for someone whose position doesn't include driving, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold on to a current job or to be hired for new work. Those employers large enough to provide health insurance and retirement benefits are among those most likely to have formalized hiring practices screening out persons who have been convicted for alcohol and drug offenses. Employers who don't perform background checks on new hires are typically smaller organizations which don't offer lucrative and valuable employee benefits. Non-U.S. citizens often find it difficult to remain within the country once convicted of a DUI offense, even when arrests occurred in the absence of accidents or injuries.

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