SAN FRANCISCO – The man charged with drunken driving after downing up to a dozen cups of kava tea was effectively acquitted after his case ended in a mistrial Friday.
A jury at the San Mateo County Superior Court found itself hung 10-2 in favor of acquitting Taufui Piutau, who California Highway Patrol officers arrested for DUI on Aug. 7, 1999.
The case is thought to be he first of its kind in California.
Piutau, a native of the South Pacific island nation Tonga, was allegedly weaving before CHP officers puled him over. He also failed a roadside sobriety test after being stopped.
Prosecutors said the kava he drank before the arrest impaired his ability to drive. Kava tea, used ceremoniously in the Pacific islands, is made by immersing in water powder made from the rhizome of a pepper plant called kava-kava or Piper Methysticum.
The Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines calls kava-kava a drug with anti-anxiety effects used to treat patients who are nervous, stressed or restless.
The mistrial forces District Attorney Jim Fox to decide whether he will refile the charges, something he told the San Francisco Chronicle is unlikely.
“With a split like that in a misdemeanor case, I can’t remember the last time a case was retried,” he said.
Defense attorney Scott B. Ennis suggested to the jury that the “impairment” investigators saw could be explained as a combination of gout and cultural misunderstanding.