'Driving While Caffeinated' Defense?

Lawyer says a caffeine-induced psychosis may have caused a hit-and-run crash.

December 10, 2009, 7:01 PM

Dec. 11, 2009— -- A man who allegedly speeds down a country road, hits two pedestrians, gets arrested and then runs handcuffed toward his wife's office in 5-degree weather, all while wearing only pajamas and flip flops, might lead someone to think of alcohol.

But his lawyer argues caffeine might be to blame.

Washington State University Police arrested 31-year-old Daniel Noble early Monday morning after what state troopers call a "bizarre" series of events that sent two students to the hospital with broken legs. He's charged with two counts of vehicular assault and two counts of hit-and-run.

State police and Noble's attorney, Mark Moorer, say that initial blood work and psychiatric evaluations haven't yet explained what happened.

So, Moorer is suggesting that "caffeine-induced psychosis" may be to blame for his client's alleged reckless driving and bizarre behavior.

Caffeine-induced psychosis, more accurately "caffeine intoxication," is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which serves as a so-called bible of psychiatrists. However, caffeine experts say they couldn't be sure what was behind Noble's behaviorr.

"That particular morning he appeared at the Starbucks very early, wearing his pajamas without his cell phone, without anything, and he ordered his usual. The barista there knows him," said Moorer, who noted Noble had two of his usual drinks that morning.

Coffee cup in hand, Moorer said Noble continued on, driving erratically, to the Washington State University, Pullman campus, supposedly to find his wife, who was still at home.

From police accounts, it started with a call that a gold-colored Pontiac Grand Am similar to Noble's, was speeding on Route 270, passing cars erratically and splitting traffic before heading into the college town of Pullman.

"First, he hits the kid in the crosswalk, severely injures him, and continues on. About a block later, he hit another kid hard enough that he knocks him out of his shoes... he just continues on," said Sgt. Brad Hudson with the Washington State Patrol. "Then he just stops, blocking the left lane, gets out of his car..."

Aftermath of Driving While Caffeinated?

Two students, Neil Waldbjorn, 19, of Malaga, Wash., and Hogun Hahm, 23, of Pullman, remain hospitalized in satisfactory condition at Pullman Regional Hospital, according to The Associated Press. Each suffered a broken leg.

After an alleged scuffle, university police subdued the 300-pound Noble with a Taser and sent him to a psychiatric evaluation.

Moorer told ABC News he still has no physical or psychiatric explanation for the incident, only some theories: delirium, atypical psychosis, or caffeine-induced psychosis.

Moorer painted a picture of Noble as a high-powered financial analyst for the University of Idaho in nearby Moscow and, according to reports from his wife, he also "jugs significant energy drinks and copious amounts of coffee."

"He drinks approximately two pots a day and the equivalent of three or four energy drinks," said Moorer.

Now, Moorer wonders if some sort of delirium or coffee-induced psychosis could have caused his behavior and he's waiting for blood tests to come back from the hospital.

"We don't know if it's a caffeine psychosis -- it's just one of a series of possible mental health issues," he said.

Experts in caffeine and caffeine addiction affirmed that there is indeed a diagnosis for "caffeine intoxication," but noted that the diagnosis is more complicated than intoxication for any other drug.

"There's a psychiatric syndrome that's recognized," said Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University. "It's diagnosable if someone has consumed an excess of 250 milligrams of caffeine, so that's slightly over a large cup of coffee."

Doctors have noted that people may experience nervousness, excitement, insomnia, flushed face, psychomotor agitation or "rambling flow of thought or speech," while intoxicated with caffeine. More severe reports have shown caffeine intoxication can induce fever and sensory disturbances. It can worsen the symptoms of people with schizophrenia.

But that's not to say anyone who drinks a latte could go berserk at any moment.

Could Coffee Make Us All Crazy?

Griffiths points out that plenty of people build up a tolerance to coffee and aren't affected at all.

"Caffeine produces a lot of tolerance. For some people it produces almost complete tolerance. There are people who can drink five cups of coffee a day and still go to sleep," said Griffiths.

Daniel Evatt, a research fellow at Johns Hopkins Medical School who runs a clinic to get caffeine addicts clean, affirmed that caffeine can cause "intoxication." But he noted it depends on the individual's consumption, and or even genetics.

"What might cause caffeine intoxication in one person may not cause caffeine intoxication in another," said Evatt.

Moreover, caffeine intoxication can affect someone who rarely drinks coffee, or a long-time coffee addict who drinks enough to reach complete tolerance.

Evatt said the average person consumes about 200 mg of caffeine a day. By 750-1,000 mg of coffee a day and Evatt estimates "you're much more likely to develop complete tolerance, and you're going to develop withdrawal symptoms."

From Moorer's descriptions of Noble's caffeine consumption, Evatt estimates he was drinking two grams of caffeine a day -- that's 10 times the average caffeine consumption.

Yet, those grams of caffeine could have just been bringing Noble back to his normal functioning level rather than agitating him.

Evatt explained that caffeine gives a mental boost to those who are not addicted. But for those who are addicted, "they're now just using caffeine to reverse the withdrawal," and get back to normal.

With coffee intoxication, "You're really [at] risk if you are consuming more than your [normal] daily consumption," said Evatt.

Barry Smith, author of "Caffeine and Activation Theory" calls caffeine "the most widely consumed drug in the world."

He also thinks of it as one of the safest drugs around.

"It actually probably has more benefits than harm. There's no longer any evidence that caffeine causes heart attacks," said Smith, director of the Laboratory of Human Psychophysiology at the University of Maryland.

"The bottom line is that it is a very, very safe substance," he said.

Smith points out that caffeine can multiply the symptoms of anxiety disorders in some people, but not all. Caffeine withdrawal, which mostly causes headaches, is also one of the safer forms of drug withdrawal.

He couldn't guess about Noble's addiction level, except to say caffeine can indeed "produce a very, very high level of physiological effect."

"If the blood comes out black then you know he had too much," he joked.