New Jersey residents may be surprised to learn that a rare medical condition may cause individuals to have blood alcohol levels far in excess of the legal driving limit even when they have not consumed significant amounts of alcohol. The condition is known as auto-brewery syndrome or gut-fermentation syndrome, and it was the reason that drunk driving charges filed against a New York woman were dismissed even though toxicology tests revealed that her blood alcohol level was about four times the .08 percent legal limit.
The condition was first identified in 1912, but little is known about it. Doctors do know that people suffering from the condition have elevated levels of gastrointestinal yeast, which converts carbohydrates into ethanol. Sufferers often demonstrate no signs of intoxication even though blood or breath tests show that they are legally intoxicated.
The New York woman's attorney said that he began to study possible medical explanations after hearing that his client had consumed only enough alcohol to have a blood alcohol level of between .01 and .05 at the time of the incident. The woman had been at a restaurant in upstate New York with her husband prior to driving. She was pulled over after another motorist called authorities to report a car being driven on a flat tire. The woman's blood alcohol level was so high that she was immediately taken to an area hospital.
This case shows how breath tests may not always be a reliable indicator of impairment in a drunk driving case. While auto-brewery syndrome may be quite rare, more common medical conditions, such as the high level of acetone found in the systems of diabetics and those on strict diets, can also lead to misleading breath test results. Defense attorneys could also challenge the accuracy of test results by raising questions about the equipment that was used or the way that the test was performed.