Medical professionals, especially those who work in the field such as EMTs or paramedics, are familiar with signs of blood sugar problems in people with diabetes. Someone may phone 911 to report a man slumped over behind the wheel of a car in a parking lot. When the ambulance arrives, medics try to wake the man, who responds sluggishly, then becomes combative, with slurred speech and breath that smells like alcohol. The man may be nauseous and unable to walk or make coordinated movements.
Field medics know from experience that the man is more likely having a diabetic emergency than a substance-abuse incident. To a non-medical person, the man appears drunk. After a quick test and the appropriate medical treatment, the man leaves by ambulance for the hospital. A diabetic emergency can be deadly, resulting in coma and then death.
Police mistake diabetic shock for alcohol intoxication
In Florida, a local retail store called the police to remove a man who was on the floor near the checkout stands and refused to get up or leave. Officers arrived on the scene. The man became combative when they tried to get him to stand. Unable to control the man’s wild attempts to strike out at them, police finally resorted to a taser. They charged the man with battery and assault against an officer, arrested him and took him away.
The man, in reality, was not acting under the influence of alcohol, he was in diabetic shock. His blood sugar had dropped suddenly, putting him in a dangerous medical condition. The man needed help, not arrest. At the time of the media report in November 2018, the man was looking into hiring an attorney. He claimed officers had left contusions on his face and arms after he had blacked out at the cash register. Also, they failed to get him the life-saving medical treatment he needed and arrested him under suspicion of intoxication. Law enforcement is currently investigating the incident.
DUI charges result in frequent arrests of diabetic people
When a diabetic crisis occurs, one form is a condition where blood sugar falls too low. In an attempt to boost sugar, the liver produces substances called ketones that smell like alcohol on the breath. Ketones build up in the body until they cause DKA, a condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis. DKA can cause death if untreated.
It is easy to see why police officers can mistake a DKA crisis for drunkenness. The diabetic person’s breath smells suspicious, the reaction time slows, the person becomes confused, flushing of the face occurs and the person can stagger around in an uncoordinated manner. Most serious of all, there is a high relationship between DKA and a false positive on a breathalyzer test.
In Philadelphia, a woman wearing a Type 1 Diabetic medical bracelet suffered a 24-hour arrest hold. The jail refused her request for insulin. She posted bail. As she was walking home, she collapsed and died. Her family filed a lawsuit on behalf of her estate. The court case revealed the police detention unit had never received the training required by the police department regarding diabetes. People with diabetes falsely arrested for DUI have the right to receive compensation and possibly punitive damages when law enforcement endangers their lives.