ALBANY, N.Y. » Drunken-driving charges against an upstate New York woman have been dismissed based on an unusual defense: Her body is a brewery.
The woman was arrested while driving with a blood-alcohol level more than four times the legal limit. She then discovered she has a rare condition called “auto-brewery syndrome,” in which her digestive system converts ordinary food into alcohol, her lawyer Joseph Marusak said in interviews this week.
A town judge in the Buffalo suburb of Hamburg dismissed the drunken-driving charges this month after Marusak presented a doctor’s research showing the woman had the previously undiagnosed condition in which high levels of yeast in her intestines fermented high-carbohydrate foods into alcohol.
The rare condition, also known as gut fermentation syndrome, was first documented in the 1970s in Japan, and both medical and legal experts in the U.S. say it is being raised more frequently in drunken-driving cases as it is becomes more known.
“At first glance, it seems like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. “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.”
The condition was first documented in the U.S. by Barbara Cordell of Panola College in Texas, who published a case study in 2013 of a 61-year-old man who had been experiencing episodes of debilitating drunkenness without drinking liquor.
Marusak contacted Cordell for help with his client who insisted she hadn’t had more than three drinks in the six hours before she was pulled over for erratic driving Oct. 11, 2014. The woman was charged with driving while intoxicated when a Breathalyzer test showed her blood-alcohol content to be 0.33 percent.
Cordell referred Marusak to Dr. Anup Kanodia of Columbus, Ohio, who eventually diagnosed the woman with auto-brewery syndrome and prescribed a low-carbohydrate diet that brought the situation under control. She is currently free to drive without restrictions.
During the long wait for an appointment, Marusak arranged to have two nurses and a physician’s assistant monitor his client for a day to document she drank no alcohol, and to take several blood samples for testing.
“At the end of the day, she had a blood-alcohol content of .36 without drinking any alcoholic beverages,” Marusak said. He said the woman also bought a Breathalyzer and blew into it every night for 18 days, registering around .20 every time.
The legal threshold for drunkenness in New York is 0.08.
While people in cases described by Cordell sought help because they felt drunk and didn’t know why, Marusak said that’s not true of his client.
“She had no idea she had this condition. Never felt tipsy. Nothing,” he said.
Marusak submitted medical evidence of his client’s condition to the judge, who dismissed the DWI charges Dec. 9.
Assistant Erie County District Attorney Christopher Belling said the matter is being reviewed and his office doesn’t comment on open cases.
Marusak declined to name the woman, citing medical confidentiality laws. He said the case has been sealed since the charges were dropped. The Buffalo News described her as a 35-year-old school teacher, and quoted the arresting officer as saying she had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and failed several field sobriety tests.
Turley noted that auto-brewery syndrome was only a valid defense in this case because the woman was unaware she had it. He said courts have long recognized that people who know they have medical conditions can be found liable for failing to take reasonable measures in light of that knowledge.
Kanodia, the Ohio doctor, said two DWI cases where auto-brewery syndrome is being used as a defense are currently being tried in Texas and Oregon.