A 35-year-old Buffalo, New York area woman drove home drunk last year, and the police officer who pulled her over appeared to have landed a real fish. With her blood alcohol content at 0.33 percent—more than four times the legal limit—the driver was well into falling-down or falling-asleep-at-the-wheel territory.
A year later, though, and she's off the hook. If you assumed some legal acrobatics were involved in such a legendary DUI dismissal, you are correct. Her lawyer was able to get the charges dropped by proving that her body produces its own alcohol, leading to a natural state of drunkenness.
It may seem like a Beerfest gag, but it isn't. Some people's bodies produce excess yeast from normal food and drink that gets trapped in the small intestine, where it turns to alcohol that is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. The condition, known as "auto-brewery syndrome" or "gut fermentation syndrome," is rare, but it gets those who have it quite literally drunk even when they haven't been near a bar.
"They are legally drunk, but they are walking around. They are functioning," Dr. Anup Kanodia, who studies auto-brewery syndrome, told Buffalo News about those who suffer from the disorder. "There are people who get drunk without drinking any alcohol at all."
The woman in question seems to have been beyond a buzz, though, when she was pulled over last October.
The Buffalo News reports that the woman, a schoolteacher, was stopped a little after 7 PM when police say they observed her 2010 Toyota Corolla "weaving all over" and producing "a large amount of smoke and a noticeable smell of burning rubber." The car's front tire was flat, too, and the driver "exhibited glassy-bloodshot eyes and slurred speech." She failed several different field sobriety tests.
"She was highly intoxicated, as shown by the Breathalyzer," Hamburg Police Chief Gregory G. Wickett told the AP. "Our officers did the right thing in getting her off the road. Whether she has a medical issue that causes it is not for me to decide."
The woman had no more than three drinks prior to driving, consumed between noon and 5:45 PM—more than a taste, but nowhere near enough to land the BAC she blew. Various BAC estimators will tell you that a 140-pound woman needs to powerhouse around ten drinks in a single hour to get to that level of wasted.
Confused by her unexplained, profound drunkenness, the woman's lawyer, Joseph Marusak, contacted Barbara Cordell at Panola College in Texas, who published a study in 2013 involving a man who experienced severe drunkenness without drinking. Cordell put Marusak in touch with Kanodia, who diagnosed the auto-brewery syndrome.
To reach the diagnosis, two nurses and a physician's assistant spent a day with Marusak's client during which she drank no alcohol and monitored her BAC. By the end of the day she registered at 0.36, an incredibly high reading. (The legal limit to drive in New York State is 0.08.) The woman then used a Breathalyzer to record her BAC for nearly 20 days, recording a level somewhere around 0.2 every night.
Diagnosis in hand, the judge dismissed the case on December 9. The tactic only worked, though, because the woman in question didn't know she had auto-brewery syndrome. Those with conditions that might impair driving need to take precautions to ensure they are abiding by the law.
"She had no idea she had this condition. Never felt tipsy. Nothing," Marusak said.
And despite the elevated BAC, the drunken behavior isn't the norm.
"She can register a blood alcohol content that would have you or I falling down drunk, but she can function," Musarak told the Buffalo News.
The woman is now on a low-carb diet, which moderates auto-brewery syndrome, and is free to drive. Unfortunately for her, she isn't out of the woods yet. The Erie County District Attorney's office says it will appeal the ruling and try to reinstate the charges.
Kornodia estimates that 95 percent of people with auto-brewery syndrome have no idea they have it. There has been an increase in gut-brewery syndrome coming up in DUI cases as the condition becomes more known.
"I have heard of auto-brewery syndrome. It is not made up," Thomas Trbovich, a Buffalo-area DUI lawyer told the Buffalo News. "I could imagine a lot more attorneys attempting to use this as a defense if this Hamburg case is successful for the defense."
But others are saying not so fast.
"At first glance, it seems like a get-out-of-jail-free card," Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, told the AP. "But it's not that easy. Courts tend to be skeptical of such claims. You have to be able to document the syndrome through recognized testing."
Though the Buffalo area woman was able to prove her body is a brewery, the condition is still rare. Most people will continue to get their DUIs the old-fashioned way.