SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - A Federal Express driver was suspended without pay and faces a drunken driving charge after drinking eight to 10 cups of kava tea with church friends.
Taufui Piutau pleaded innocent Tuesday in San Mateo County Municipal Court in what is believed to be the state's first DUI prosecution for driving under the influence of kava.
''He was drinking tea, but he was not guilty for having reduced capacity to drive,'' said Piutau's lawyer, Scott Ennis. ''It's like drinking a double cappuccino.''
The drink, 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.
Proper usage presents no known health hazards, the reference said. ''Reduced visual power and reactivity while driving may occur, but this effect has not been confirmed,'' the book said.
A bottle of kava-kava pills Ennis toted in his briefcase carried a warning that said, ''Kava kava may adversely affect motor reflexes and judgment for driving ... '' but Ennis said the drink is a different product.
Piutau, a Tonga native, had been drinking kava for six or seven hours before he was pulled over on U.S. Highway 101 around 3 a.m. Aug. 7, Ennis said.
California Highway Patrol officers said they stopped Piutau because he was driving slowly - about 55 mph - and weaving between lanes.
He failed a field sobriety test and was given a urine test, which detected no drugs, alcohol or kava, his lawyer said.
Deputy District Attorney Rachel Holt said the test is not designed to detect kava.
She said the state's drunk driving law covers driving under the influence of any substance that impairs muscles, the central nervous system or the brain so that a person cannot operate a vehicle safely.
She said she will bring experts to testify that kava suppresses the central nervous system.
Ennis, who in court sported a tie depicting the scales of justice and the words ''Not guilty,'' called the case ridiculous. ''There's nothing in any law book that says that kava tea is wrong,'' he said.
Prosecutors have dragged out the case, taking nine months to charge Piutau, which has cost the 47-year-old San Bruno father of four between $20,000 and $35,000 in lost wages, Ennis said.
Federal Express placed Piutau, a delivery driver for 4 years, on unpaid leave one week after he was pulled over last summer.
And on Tuesday, just before coming to court, Piutau received a letter from Federal Express - via Federal Express - citing his ''DUI conviction'' as grounds to fire him as a driver.
Federal Express spokeswoman Darlene Faquin said later Tuesday that the letter was sent in error. She said company policy dictates that drivers be suspended when cited for DUI until the matter is cleared. She said the company offered Piutau a non-driving job for the same pay, which he turned down.
Holt said prosecutors have a year to bring charges and took nine months to ensure that they could prove their case.
A jury trial is scheduled for June 26.
On the Net:
Physicians' Desk Reference: http://www.pdr.net/