There’s a new drunk driving defense in town. A New York woman has just successfully used the bizarre defense to skirt a DWI charge after cops allegedly found her glassy-eyed and watched her blow a BAC four times the legal limit.
She wasn’t drunk, she claimed. Her body is a brewery.
The woman, a 35-year-old teacher whose identity wasn’t released as a courtesy to save her from embarrassment, blew a.33 BAC. That’s high enough to qualify as alcohol poisoning, the Buffalo News reported. Usually, cops will take these suspected drunks to the hospital.
But the woman claims she wasn’t drunk, and had only consumed a few cocktails earlier in the day — not nearly enough to blow a.33 BAC. So after cops slapped her with misdemeanor charges of DWI and aggravated DWI, her attorney, Joseph J. Marusak started to do a little digging.
What he discovered was a very rare disorder that turns ordinary food into alcohol in a person’s body. It’s called Auto-Brewery Syndrome (A.K.A. gut fermentation syndrome), and it’s a real thing. Marusak found a doctor who specializes in the disorder, had his client tested, and ultimately spent $7,000 in medical tests to prove his client’s body is essentially a brewery.
And all it takes is some French fries to get tipsy.
“She can register a blood alcohol content that would have you or I falling down drunk, but she can function,” Marusak said, describing the case as “bizarre and unusual — one of the strangest cases I’ve ever been involved with in more than 30 years as a lawyer.”
Understandably, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office is appealing the dismissal and wants the charges reinstated. A town judge in Hamburg dismissed the case on December 9; the woman was charged last October.
So what exactly is Auto-Brewery Syndrome? According to U.S. News and World Report, the bodies of sufferers use excess intestinal yeast to transform normal food into alcohol. The end result is life-threatening BACs.
Apparently, Auto-Brewery Syndrome flare-ups are caused by eating lots of carbs and changes in diet can often ease symptoms. Though not much is known about the disorder, scientists think it’s connected to the long-term use of antibiotics. In two other cases, sufferers experienced a reduction in symptoms after cutting back their carb and sugar consumption and taking anti-fungal meds.
Only 50 to 100 people are believed to have the disorder, and up to 95 percent of sufferers are undiagnosed, said Dr. Anup Kanodia, of Columbus, Ohio. He has treated people with Auto-Brewery Syndrome and tested Marusak’s client in Buffalo.
The woman’s BAC was checked 18 times, and each time she hadn’t been drinking. Regardless, her blood alcohol content was almost always above.20 percent. The doc repeated the tests and came up with the same results.
“Her blood alcohol level was repeatedly measured at very high levels —.279, then.379 and then.40 — extremely high levels,” Marusak said. “We then took blood samples and refrigerated them, and took them to the Erie County Medical Center lab to be examined. Again, those levels came out extremely high.”
And apparently, people with Auto-Brewery Syndrome have grown to tolerate high levels of alcohol in their bodies, and can function better than most. At the levels this woman registered last year, most people would be “falling-down drunk” or falling asleep at the wheel, said local DWI attorney Michael Taheri.
On that night in October, the woman allegedly “exhibited glassy-bloodshot eyes and slurred speech” and failed several sobriety tests. Her car was seen by a witness “weaving all over” the road and one of her tires was flat. The police officer who pulled her over said her breath smelled of booze.
“They are legally drunk, but they are walking around. They are functioning,” Kanodia explained. “There are people who get drunk without drinking any alcohol at all. I would say it is not safe to drive a car if you are in an auto brewery syndrome flare … But it’s a brand new disease and we’re still trying to understand it.”
So should district attorney’s worry that defense lawyers will start declaring Auto-Brewery Syndrome to help their clients skirt DWI charges? Not likely, Marusak said, since it’s difficult and expensive to prove.
[Photo by Life science of anatomy/Shutterstock]