Paul Buhl was once a probate court judge and attorney practicing construction and real estate law. But his decades-long career is blemished with two drunken-driving cases against him that led to six months’ incarceration and suspension of his law license.
While a record containing DWI arrests can suggest ongoing problems with alcohol, the 58-year-old East Haddam attorney says he’s never had a drinking problem. He claims a medical condition, hypothyroidism, factored into his arrests.
“I’m a guy who went through a lot of health problems and I was caught in an incredible stream of bad luck,” Buhl said in an interview. “I’m not whining, but once you are arrested, everyone thinks you are guilty. I would not take an alcohol education class because I did not want to say I was guilty. In practical terms, that is an admission of guilt.”
But Buhl’s explanation failed to convince those with the power to save his law license.
The Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel recommended a two years’ suspension over the criminal convictions. And in an April 12 ruling, Middletown Superior Court Judge Jose Suarez scolded Buhl for not showing remorse.
“The court is also mindful of the defendant’s extensive disciplinary history,” Suarez ruled.
A clinician who the Connecticut Law Tribune contacted also seemed to cast doubt on the attorney’s explanation.
Dr. Gary Yacono, a Danbury-based doctor and the former head of primary care at Danbury Hospital, said Thursday that in “extreme cases” untreated hypothyroidism could cause unsteadiness, weakness, and also affect walking.
But Yacono, a doctor for more than 20 years, said he’s never seen the ailment resemble inebriation.
“I don’t see how it would give you a positive Breathalyzer,” he said.
Buhl’s criminal record also includes a conviction for operating a motor vehicle without registration. But the former lawyer insists he thought his license was valid at the time of his arrest.
Buhl was suspended from practicing law for 26 months in April. That sentence is retroactive from the date of his convictions in July 2017, and is set to end in September 2019.
But Buhl says he has no plans to return to practice. He said he tried his last case in 2014, ending a career that dated back to 1987. A native of Ashland, Massachusetts, he has lived in East Haddam for 30 years. He spent the last four years focused on consulting work, primarily with real estate and construction companies.
“I left the practice for health reasons and for health reasons only,” said Buhl, a former solo practitioner. “Today, more and more lawyers are chasing less and less work.”
Buhl’s first charge for driving under the influence came in June 2015. He said he’d never run afoul of the law before that incident. Then, 16 months later, there was a second arrest for driving while drunk.
He said he didn’t know it then, but he had hypothyroidism since 2015.
“It affects people in different ways and you start falling asleep at inappropriate times,” Buhl said. “If you do not take the medication, you can fall asleep at the wheel. I totaled the car after blacking out at the wheel.”
Buhl claims the disease caused him to fall “over during the field sobriety test.” He also claims the Breathalyzer test, which estimates blood alcohol content, was not accurate. Buhl said the first test showed his blood alcohol level was 0.34, more than four times the legal limit of 0.08 in Connecticut. When asked to submit to a second test, Buhl refused.
“I assumed the machine was screwed up and I said I would not blow into the tube the second time,” he said. “You’d have to consume quarts of hard liquor in 60 minutes to get that amount of alcohol in your system.”
Buhl was arrested a second time in October 2016 after driving out of the East Haddam City Hall. A passerby called police to report him.
“I could not walk and I was unsteady and I failed the field sobriety test,” Buhl said.
According to Buhl, he had just come out of a hospital, where he had spent almost two weeks after episodes of dizziness and disorientation.
Buhl said he drinks occasionally, but said he did not consume any alcohol for at least 12 hours before both arrests. In both cases, he said he had no more than two drinks.
Buhl said he has no anger or grudges against anyone over the arrests or end of his law career.
“I’m past all of this now,” he said. “I want to move on with my life.”