Driving home from work on an interstate north of San Francisco in August 2015, glassworker Joseph Schwab, 36, was waved over to the side of the road by an agent of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, who accused Schwab of cutting off her unmarked vehicle, weaving in and out of traffic, and driving so erratically as to nearly cause several collisions.
During the traffic stop, Schwab took several field sobriety tests and a breathalyzer test, which showed no trace of alcohol. But viewing him as agitated and noting his pupils were dilated, the agent suspected Schwab of being under the influence of both a stimulant and a depressant and arrested him on two misdemeanor charges, drug-impaired driving and reckless driving.
Taken to the county jail, Schwab was given a blood test. But its results, confirmed by a re-test done by an outside lab, proved negative for cocaine, THC, opiates, oxycodone, methamphetamines, and various other commonly abused sedatives, hallucinogens, and muscle relaxants. In fact, the sole drug detected in Schwab’s bloodstream turned out to be, wait for it… caffeine.
The state’s vehicle code includes in its definition of “drug” any substance other than alcohol capable of acting to “impair, to an appreciable degree” the ability to drive normally. Caffeine has never been shown to meet that definition; if anything, caffeine may improve driving performance, at least for longer-distance travel.
Even so, the Solano County district attorney charged Schwab with the misdemeanor of driving under the influence of a drug, although it took until June 2016, nearly 10 months after the arrest and about six months after the lab results came back, to file the case. Citing that delay, Schwab’s lawyer moved for dismissal.
Even though unable to identify any substance linked to a DUI charge — the chief deputy prosecutor told the press the charge wasn’t based on the caffeine in Schwab’s blood – the district attorney’s office said it would press ahead with the case and was investigating further, and voiced the opinion Schwab had been under the influence of some drug not detected by the lab tests.
But, two weeks before Schwab’s trial was scheduled to start, the district attorney dropped the DUI charge. To explain the about-face, the D.A. said conversations with county investigators and forensic toxicologists made it unlikely the DUI charge could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The district attorney specifically denied the decision to drop the DUI charge owed anything to incorrect, but widely circulated, news reports that Schwab’s drug-impaired driving charge was based on the presence of caffeine. The lab tests showing only the presence of caffeine amounted to a serious weakness in the case, not the basis for it. While the DUI charge was dismissed, Schwab still faces the other misdemeanor charge of reckless driving.
If caffeine were such a public menace, however, the county sheriff’s office may want to rethink its countywide community outreach program, Coffee with a Cop, which periodically invites residents to local restaurants to meet representatives of the sheriff’s office, the state highway patrol, and community police forces, and to discuss local issues and build relationships, over cups of not necessarily decaffeinated coffee.