We all know you shouldn’t “drink and drive” and usually understand “drink” to be a euphemism for consuming alcohol. A man named Joseph Schwab, however, has a case that could obliterate that understanding. He has been charged in California with driving under the influence of a drug. The drug? Caffeine.
Mr. Schwab was arrested on August 5 of last year after being pulled over by a California alcoholic beverage control agent in an unmarked car. The agent claimed Schwab’s driving indicated he was under the influence of something. A breathalyzer revealed a blood alcohol content of zero. Zero point zero zero to be precise.
Convinced he was on something, authorities took Schwab to jail and drew blood which was tested in a laboratory. The blood test came back negative and that was after it had been screened for cocaine, opiates, oxycodone and all kinds of other drugs few people can pronounce. Never one to give up, law enforcement sent the sample out to another laboratory, presumably to see if they could find anything in the blood. And then they found something: caffeine.
They charged Schwab with driving while impaired.
Despite caffeine being the only thing found in Schwab’s bloodstream, the authorities are pursuing the case against him. But here is where it gets murky. The district attorney’s office insists that Schwab is not being prosecuted on the basis of the caffeine in his system. But if not caffeine, then what? Beyond the caffeine, all he had in his veins that day was blood. Good, clean, unadulterated blood.
I assure you that defendants in this country have the right to know the charges against them and the basis of those charges. It’s a fundamental right of our legal system. Schwab’s attorney has asked for any evidence beyond that which is mentioned above–the reports which are all negative except for caffeine–and so far she has been given nothing.
Now, I will point out to you that a prosecution for driving under the influence of caffeine is theoretically possible in California. This is largely because California defines “drugs” so broadly: They are any substance (excluding alcohol, which is prohibited elsewhere) affecting your brain, nervous system or muscles. And if you have those “drugs” in your system and they prevent you from operating your vehicle in the same manner as a sober person, they you are impaired. Could coffee do that to you? Seems possible. So could many cold and allergy medicines too.
Court cases like this often involve forensic toxicologists, like you might see on TV. One such toxicologist, Jeffrey Zehnder, called this case “really stupid.” He noted that in his forty-plus years of working on cases of impaired driving allegations, he has never seen one where the “drug” in question was caffeine or coffee. He suspects it is because no one has ever even bothered to study the links between coffee and driving ability. That could be because there really isn’t one. Or it could be that the Starbucks lobby is too powerful for anyone to take on.
Meanwhile, Schwab’s attorney has asked the court to throw out his case so he can get on with his life. If the case proceeds, we can all find out whether it really is illegal to drive while hopped up on coffee.
Steve Lehto is a writer and attorney from Michigan. He specializes in Lemon Law and frequently writes about cars and the law.