Hypoglycemia and DUI / OVI in Ohio

Glycemic-Index-300x200There are situations in which a law enforcement officer observes signs which appear to be symptoms of alcohol intoxication but are actually symptoms of a medical condition.  One of those situations is when a driver is experiencing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).  The symptoms of hypoglycemia are nearly identical to the symptoms of alcohol intoxication.  A driver experiencing a hypoglycemic event at the time of an OVI investigation has a legitimate defense to the charge of DUI (called ‘OVI’ in Ohio).

Alcohol Intoxication Compared To Hypoglycemia
Officers are trained to detect evidence of OVI.  That training comes primarily from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) manual DWI Detection and Field Sobriety Testing.  According to the manual, symptoms of alcohol intoxication include:  lowered alertness, reduced concentration, slowed thinking, memory loss, impaired reasoning, poor vision, slurred speech, loss of balance, and slowed reaction time.

Hypoglycemia is a condition in which the level of sugar (glucose) in a person’s blood is too low.  The brain requires a steady supply of glucose to function properly.  If the level of blood glucose is too low, bodily functions are impaired.  According to the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of hypoglycemia include:  fatigue, difficulty concentrating, confusion, lightheadedness, headache, impaired vision, slurred speech, dizziness, and sweating.

Causes of Hypoglycemia
Hypoglycemia occurs commonly in people with diabetes.  Most diabetics take medicine to lower blood glucose, and the medicine can cause the person’s blood glucose level to be too low.  The risk of hypoglycemia is increased if a person takes multiple medications which lower blood glucose.  Two common medications, Metformin and Farxiga, both warn users of the enhanced glycemic effect of combining glucose-lowering agents.  In addition, the risk of hypoglycemia is increased if a person has certain medical conditions or is also taking certain prescription medications.

Hypoglycemia also occurs in non-diabetics.  A common cause of low blood glucose among people without diabetes is eating a low-carbohydrate diet.  The digestive system converts carbohydrates into glucose.  If few carbohydrates are consumed, blood glucose levels decline.  If not enough carbohydrates are consumed, the blood glucose level drops too much, and the symptoms of hypoglycemia occur.  The symptoms of hypoglycemia may also occur when a person fasts.  With the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets and intermittent fasting, many people are at risk of experiencing hypoglycemia.

Officers are not Medical Professionals
When a law enforcement officer observes symptoms of alcohol intoxication, the officer typically administers field sobriety tests.  The tests are designed to predict whether a person’s blood alcohol concentration is over .08%.  However, poor performance on field sobriety tests may be caused by the symptoms of hypoglycemia (fatigue, confusion, lightheaded, headache, impaired vision, and dizziness).  Although the NHTSA manual instructs officers to ask suspected impaired drivers if they are diabetic, the manual does not instruct officers to do anything differently if the suspect is diabetic.  The manual does not teach officers to distinguish between alcohol intoxication and hypoglycemia, and officers are not trained medical professionals.

Hypoglycemia is a Legitimate Defense
In some cases, a driver experiencing a hypoglycemic event is wrongfully arrested and charged with OVI.  A driver experiencing hypoglycemia at the time of an OVI investigation has a legitimate defense to OVI ‘impaired’.

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