Medical Conditions Mistaken For DUI

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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Tired man being investigated for DUI by a police officer in a mask

Imagine this scenario: a 45-year-old man with no history of alcohol misuse is driving home after a long day at work. Suddenly, he feels dizzy and disoriented. Struggling to maintain his lane, he gets pulled over by a police officer. The officer observes the man’s slurred speech and unsteady movements–classic signs of intoxication. However, what the officer doesn’t know is that this man is experiencing a hypoglycemic episode due to his diabetes, not alcohol impairment. 

Sometimes, what appears as DUI to a police officer can be symptoms manifesting from a medical condition. In this blog, we’ll explore various medical conditions that can mimic the symptoms of impaired driving, emphasizing the importance of informed legal defense and accurate DUI assessments.

Diabetes and DUI

Diabetes, a condition characterized by high blood sugar levels, can lead to a variety of symptoms that might be mistaken for alcohol impairment. Understanding these symptoms is key in distinguishing between a medical episode and DUI.

Hypoglycemia and Hyperglycemia

Diabetes can cause two extreme conditions: hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). Both states can produce symptoms that mimic intoxication:

  • Hypoglycemia: This condition can cause confusion, dizziness, weakness, and slurred speech. In severe cases, it may lead to unconsciousness. A driver experiencing a hypoglycemic episode might appear drunk, with impaired coordination and difficulty in speaking clearly.
    • Officers in conducting a complete investigation should ask the motorist not only about the amount they drank that day but also about whether they ate. A diabetic individual, regardless of drinking no alcohol or potentially a small amount of alcohol, who does not eat for a considerable amount of time is potentially suffering from hypoglycemia that may mimic alcohol impairment. However, even if the officer asks, we have even had cases where individuals suffering from hypoglycemia denied being diabetic to officers because there is the confusion and inability to comprehend questions and answer them when suffering from hypoglycemia.
  • Hyperglycemia: High blood sugar levels can lead to a state of ketoacidosis, where the body starts breaking down fats, producing a chemical called ketone. This can result in a fruity-smelling breath, similar to some alcoholic beverages. Additionally, hyperglycemia can cause extreme thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, and confusion, all of which might be misinterpreted as signs of alcohol or drug use.


The attorneys at Barnes & Fersten have experience defending clients who appear impaired but are truly having a hyperglycemic or hypoglycemic episode. For example, recently a case was set for trial in a DUI involving an accident, but after we consulted with an expert, who was going to testify that the body camera footage of our client depicted someone who may be hypoglycemic especially considering the client’s timeline of when they ate last and the single glass of wine they drank, the State agreed to reduce the DUI.

Similarly, in another diabetic case, our client was charged with DUI, tampering with evidence (felony), simple possession of xanex and possession of a legend drug without a prescription. Client performed poorly on field sobriety tests and appeared to be impaired the entirety of the interaction. The State agreed to dismiss all charges and reduce the DUI to a reckless driving. The State’s theory was that he was impaired off xanex, the evidence he tampered with by throwing off the side of the road in officer’s presence, but we were able to demonstrate that he was not impaired, and the officers committed an illegal seizure by handcuffing our client after seeing him “tamper with evidence,” by arguing it was only littering at the time he was handcuffed since they did not open the container to determine if it was evidence of a crime.

Anxiety and DUI

Anxiety, particularly in high-stress situations like police interactions, can manifest in various symptoms that may be misinterpreted as intoxication. The stress of a traffic stop can trigger an acute anxiety attack, characterized by intense nervousness, panic, hyperventilation, breathing difficulties, disorientation, and confusion. These reactions can be so severe that they resemble the erratic behavior often associated with drunk driving.

Anxiety Attacks During Police Interactions

An acute anxiety attack can manifest in both physical and verbal ways that could be misinterpreted by law enforcement. Physical signs like trembling, shaking, and rapid breathing could be mistaken for the physical instability seen in drunk drivers. Similarly, difficulties in speech such as stammering or rapid, disjointed talking can resemble the slurred speech of someone under the influence.

Individuals experiencing an anxiety attack may also struggle with field sobriety tests. Tasks that require clear communication, balance, and coordination can be challenging under the stress of the moment, potentially leading to false positives in DUI assessments.

Allergic Reactions and DUI

Allergies can bring about symptoms that appear like those of intoxication. Red, watery eyes, often seen in individuals experiencing allergies, can be mistaken for a sign of intoxication by police officers. Cognitive impairments like confusion and disorientation mirror those caused by alcohol or drug use. Additionally, the physical discomfort from allergic reactions, such as hives or respiratory difficulties, can lead to coordination problems, adding to the misperception of impairment.

Allergy Medications and DUI

Allergy medications can also be a complicating factor during a traffic stop. Antihistamines can cause drowsiness, dizziness, or slower reaction times, which can significantly impair driving abilities. If drivers stopped for suspected DUI are under the effects of allergy medication, this can present a challenge for accurate DUI evaluation.

Migraines and DUI

Migraines are far more severe than typical headaches and can impair drivers in ways that resemble intoxication. Individuals suffering from migraines may experience intense pain, blurred vision, sensitivity to light and sound, and disorientation. These symptoms can affect driving ability, leading to erratic behavior on the road that law enforcement might mistake for signs of DUI.

Migraine Misinterpretation During Traffic Stops

During traffic stops, officers might observe a driver with a migraine struggling with balance, focus, or coordination, similar to an intoxicated person. Drivers suffering from a migraine might fail field sobriety tests not due to alcohol or drug use, but because of their impaired physical and cognitive abilities caused by the migraine. It’s important for law enforcement to recognize that such symptoms can stem from a medical condition.

Sleep Apnea and DUI

Sleep apnea, a condition characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep, leads to fragmented sleep and chronic fatigue. This can severely impair alertness and motor skills, often resembling intoxication symptoms while driving. Drivers with untreated sleep apnea may show drowsiness, slow reactions, and cognitive impairment, resembling signs of DUI.

Recognizing Sleep Apnea in DUI Investigations

Law enforcement officers may not immediately associate symptoms like impaired focus or coordination with sleep apnea during a DUI stop. In such cases, it’s vital to present medical evidence of the condition. Documentation of sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment, coupled with expert testimony on its effects on driving

Role of a DUI Defense Attorney in Cases Involving Medical Conditions

When facing DUI charges that stem from medical conditions, comprehensive legal defense is essential. In this section, we’ll explore how a DUI defense attorney scrutinizes every piece of evidence, from police videos to medical records, and how they leverage this analysis to build a strong defense.

Gathering Medical Documentation

An experienced DUI attorney begins by meticulously gathering evidence crucial to the case. This involves collecting detailed medical records that provide a history of the defendant’s condition. These records can offer insight into whether symptoms observed at the time of the DUI stop were a result of the medical condition rather than substance use. The attorney ensures that every piece of medical evidence is relevant, up-to-date, and comprehensive.

Analyzing Police Video Footage

Analyzing video footage from police dashcams or bodycams forms a critical part of the defense strategy. A DUI defense attorney examines these videos closely to assess the officer’s conduct and the defendant’s behavior during the stop. They look for any discrepancies between the video evidence and the officer’s report, seeking objective data that can support the defendant’s case.

Challenging Field Sobriety Tests

An attorney challenges the reliability of field sobriety tests, particularly when a defendant’s medical condition could impact the results. They argue that these tests may not be an accurate indicator of impairment for individuals with certain health issues, and advocate for a more nuanced interpretation of the test results in light of the defendant’s medical history.

Presenting Alternative Explanations

In cases where symptoms of a medical condition might be misinterpreted as signs of intoxication, a criminal defense attorney presents alternative explanations. They can use medical evidence and expert testimony to explain how symptoms like slurred speech or unsteady movement, typically associated with intoxication, could actually be the result of a medical condition.

Accounting for External Factors

Lastly, the DUI attorney considers external factors that might have influenced the defendant’s condition at the time of the DUI stop. This includes factors such as stress, fatigue, or environmental conditions, which can exacerbate symptoms of a medical condition. The attorney argues how these factors should be considered when assessing the defendant’s state during the DUI evaluation.

Retaining an Expert

In many cases involving medical conditions it is necessary to retain a medical expert who watches the body camera, reviews medical records, and hears the client’s timeline of events. This allows the medical expert to determine if the medical condition was the reason for the client’s conduct during the investigation.

Barnes & Fersten’s DUI Attorneys Are Ready To Help

At Barnes & Fersten, we know that facing DUI charges can be stressful and confusing, particularly when a medical condition is involved. Our experienced legal team is dedicated to providing a defense that considers every aspect of your unique situation. We’ll guide you through every step, ensuring your side of the story is heard and your rights are defended.

Don’t let a misunderstanding dictate your future. Reach out to Barnes & Fersten today for a comprehensive and compassionate approach to your DUI defense. Our Knoxville DUI attorneys are ready to give you the support and guidance you need.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.