Everyone agrees that driving under the influence is an inherently stupid and selfish thing to do. But driving under the influence of caffeine is something so benign that few would consider it to stir even the smallest amount of concern in anyone, let alone a police officer. And yet, that's the situation Joseph Schwab finds himself in after being pulled over by a California Alcohol Beverage Control agent in August 2015 for allegedly driving erratically near Fairfield, CA. ABC agent Michelle Ott pulled Schwab over and subjected him to a field sobriety test and a blood test. After the incident, Schwab had his blood sample sent to a third-party lab for further testing, which found only one substance in his bloodstream: caffeine.
Mind you, driving under the influence of caffeine isn’t illegal anywhere in the United States (even in Utah—thanks, Mormons!). But in spite of common sense and practicality, Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams is pursuing charges against Schwab—suggesting that she believes that some other drug, which did not appear in any toxicology reports—somehow impaired Schwab’s driving. But considering there’s no physical evidence that anything caused Schwab to drive erratically and appear agitated after being pulled over (and who wouldn’t be?), the charges seem difficult to prove in court.
But what is especially frightening about this case is not that caffeine and DUI are being used in the same sentence, but that the state of California is sticking to its guns on a case where it lacks any physical evidence to back up its allegations. Worse yet, the caffeine DUI case is forcing Schwab to take on mountains of debt, in addition to creating a Google trail about the case that won’t likely evaporate any time soon.
As trivial and humorous as this whole affair may seem, it highlights one of the most insidious trends in the U.S. criminal justice system—that defendants are penalized for taking their cases to trial. Frequently, prosecutors push defendants to plead guilty pre-trial in exchange for reduced fines and penalties. When some refuse—even if there's little evidence to suggest they committed a crime—they may be punished by way of lengthy legal procedures and prolonged trials. This practice is known as malicious prosecution, which occurs whenever a prosecutor pursues legal action that is brought to court without probable cause, or is designed to cause distress and financial harm to a defendant.
Schwab’s not the first person to face DUI charges without proof of impairment: in 2010, Paul Miller was accused of driving under the influence despite registering a 0.00 blood alcohol content and having no trace of narcotics in his system. Miller ultimately won at trial on the grounds of malicious prosecution, and had the majority of his charges reversed. In 2008, Heather Squires was arrested for driving under the influence without having a drop of alcohol in her system. The Mesa Police Department ultimately dropped all charges.
The reason that Miller and others face malicious prosecution are multifaceted: Court systems are overcrowded with cases, making it difficult to bring every legal proceeding to trial. Prosecutor schedules are overloaded, so plea bargains can make their work more expedient. Additionally, accepting charges without going to trial can save defendants thousands of dollars in legal fees, which few can afford in the first place. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of this system is that when defendants take plea bargains—be they guilty or innocent—they provide prosecutors with guaranteed wins that ultimately help them beef up their political and professional resumes.
Take for example the case of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, who refused to take a plea bargain after being charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by bulk downloading free JSTOR articles off of the MIT computer network. US District Attorney Carmen Ortiz came under fire for charging Swartz with 13 felony counts which carried a penalty of up to $1 million in fines and up to 50 years in jail. Ortiz handled many other high-profile cases, including the Boston Marathon bombings, and was working her way up the federal legal system. The high-profile case against Swartz would provide another resume-building conviction; that is, until Swartz committed suicide in 2013.
Abrams admits that the odds getting a conviction against Schwab are slim, but is committed to pressing ahead. She alleges that there must be some other drug in Schwab’s system that the toxicology report did not test for, and will press ahead with a trial in the coming months. In the meantime, if you're driving in Solano County, you might want to hold off on that cup of coffee until after you've reached your destination.