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Coffee Intoxication: DWI From Drinking too Much Coffee?

Most people associate intoxication with alcohol or illicit drugs.  However, there are many other substances that cause people to experience symptoms similar to alcohol or drug intoxication.

One substance, which may surprise many individuals, is coffee.  Could your daily cup of coffee, a morning routine or popular dessert pairing for millions of Americans, get you in trouble with the law?  What if someone was “buzzed” on coffee and started to drive erratically?  When a police officer witnesses a driver operating a vehicle in a suspicious manner, an officer has the right to pull over the driver and perform a field sobriety test.  Even though the driver had only consumed a seemingly harmless cup of coffee, could the driver be charged with driving while under the influence or driving while impaired?

What is Coffee?

Coffee is a brewed beverage made from crushed or ground seeds, referred to as coffee beans and contains caffeine. Caffeine is a naturally occurring chemical stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Caffeine is a drug; in fact, it shares many similar characteristics of amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin.

Symptoms of Too Much Coffee

In moderate doses, about 2 cups, coffee can help people remain alert and less sleepy.  However, too much coffee can cause problems.  Jokes are often made about people who have had too much coffee and the way they behave. They are portrayed as extremely hyper and running around all over the place.  Funny or not, these behaviors are not far from the truth.  Symptoms of having too much coffee include:

  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Restlessness
  • Nervousness
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Heart palpitations
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Cardiac arrest

Many of these symptoms may also be experienced by people who have had too much alcohol or who are “high” on drugs.

Driving while Intoxicated

All jurisdictions base the crime of driving while intoxicated, commonly referred to as drunk driving, on the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC).  For example, in all 50 states it is a crime to drive with a BAC of .08 or above.  A driver’s BAC is typically measured by using a breathalyzer, but a blood test or urine sample can also determine BAC.  If a driver is intoxicated by coffee, he or she will pass a test that measures BAC.  However, encompassed in driving while intoxicated laws are rules that not only prohibit driving while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs, but also the prohibition from driving  while impaired or while under intoxicating compounds.  Such language can be interpreted to also making it illegal to drive while impaired by prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and arguably by other substances such as caffeine.

Thus, if a driver is intoxicated from drinking too much coffee, a police officer can pull the suspected driver over if he or she show signs of reckless driving.  If the driver fails a field sobriety test, such as the walk and turn test or the one-leg stand test, the driver can be charged with a driving while intoxicated offense.

The goal of driving while intoxicated laws is to prevent people, who are impaired, from endangering other drivers and protect them from falling victim to a reckless driver.  Therefore, it should not matter why the driver is impaired.  While coffee seems less harmful than alcohol or illicit drugs, should the penalties for driving while intoxicated by coffee be the same as someone who is intoxicated by alcohol or drugs?

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