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Very rare condition leads to driving drunk without realizing it

Imagine drinking a single glass of wine, then getting behind the wheel. Most of us wouldn’t think twice, because such a small amount would leave you well below the legal limit and in control of your mental faculties.

Now, imagine getting into a serious car accident, after which you are tested for drunk driving. The blood test reveals that your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) is four times the legal limit. How did this happen? And if you weren’t responsible for knowingly getting drunk, should you still face criminal charges?

Situations like this have happened to a handful of people with a very rare condition known as auto-brewery syndrome. People with the disease eat regular carbohydrates, and their intestines turn those carbs into alcohol. They may be so used to fluctuating amounts of intoxication that they don’t even notice – until they get pulled over or get into an accident.

The story above was the fate of an Ohio man currently serving two years in prison for his accidental drunk-driving crash. Prior to the accident, he didn’t know he had auto-brewery syndrome, and his condition was later proven by being quarantined in a hospital with regular testing and no access to alcohol. His BAC went up and down significantly over the course of 24 hours.

For some reason, the man’s diagnosis was not enough to help him avoid conviction and sentencing. The state of Ohio apparently only cared that he was drunk behind the wheel – not why or how it happened. But there have been other cases in other states where people with the condition were able to escape punishment once their medical condition was discovered.

Situations like this raise an important issue about criminal law and the concept of “mens rea,” or guilty mind. Legal scholars have long thought that in order for someone to be guilty of a crime, they needed to have committed the illegal act intentionally and with knowledge that it was wrong. Someone with auto-brewery syndrome who doesn’t know they have it could hardly be said to have a guilty mind. They didn’t consume alcohol or know that was being produced by their own bodies. Do they deserve the same punishment as someone who is aware of being drunk and chooses to drive anyway?

Cases like this are extremely rare, and very few people arrested for drunk driving will be able to claim and prove auto-brewery syndrome. But if you find yourself facing DUI charges, you should nonetheless seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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