Judy Hamilton didn't take much notice of the police officer inside the gas station in Newton — until she was pulled over by that same officer a few minutes later and arrested on suspicion of DUI.

Hamilton, who works as a merchandiser in Walmart stores in Newton and Hutchinson, has a degenerative nerve disease called ataxia.

"My brain is shrinking, slowly," Hamilton said.

According to the National Ataxia Foundation, ataxia can manifest in children or adults and cause debilitation, with symptoms including slurred speech, stumbling and trouble with fine motor skills.

But when she was pulled over, Hamilton had yet to be diagnosed.

"I've just started having problems with my walking and my speech — that I've noticed — within the past five years," Hamilton said.

Hamilton believes the officer observed her uneven gait or heard her slurred words while inside the gas station and doesn't blame them for suspecting her of being drunk.

"I understand the fact that they didn't know ... because I didn't know, myself," Hamilton said.

Ataxia currently affects around 150,000 people in the United States.

On that evening in September 2018, Hamilton was told speeding and running a red light were the reasons she was being pulled over.

"When they pulled me over, they didn't ask me for my license or insurance ... they just said, 'would you get out of the car,'" Hamilton said.

She told the officer she would not be able to pass a field sobriety test.

"I couldn't do the heel-to-toe thing and I couldn't hold my foot up without holding onto something," Hamilton said. "...They gave me a breathalyzer (test). I blew zeroes and they handcuffed me and put me in the back seat, searched my car and everybody in the car."

Though no alcohol or drugs were found, Hamilton was taken to jail and advised of her Miranda rights. That's when Hamilton told an officer that she wasn't going to talk anymore.

When she asked about doing a blood test, she was told her earlier refusal to communicate also meant she had already refused to do it.

"(The officer) never even said anything about taking the test," Hamilton said. "...They didn't offer me any test to refuse."

After being held for six hours, Hamilton was released.

"After that, I went to the doctor again to find out why I couldn't walk, why I couldn't do the things they wanted me to do, and from that I found out I have ataxia," Hamilton said.

Ataxia can be found in individuals who have experienced a head injury or stroke. It can also occur in people with multiple sclerosis, who have a vitamin deficiency or who are alcoholics.

The disease may also be hereditary; Hamilton has two brothers who also suffer from ataxia.

"There's nothing they can do for it. There's no cure for it. It just happens," Hamilton said.

Hamilton is undergoing physical therapy to slow the progression of her symptoms.

"They told me they can't make it any better, but they can keep it to where it doesn't get any worse," Hamilton said. "That's all we can hope for."

Hamilton will appear in court later this month. In the hopes of avoiding future DUI charges, she now keeps a letter from her doctor in the car.

"It's incurable. There's nothing they can do about that, so you just live with it and do the best you can," Hamilton said.

Deputy Chief Craig Dunlavy with the Newton Police Department said officers look for signs of impairment in drivers in several ways.

"Generally, we're going to try to obtain all the evidence we can," Dunlavy said.

Common indicators of a driver being under the influence of drugs or alcohol include the presence of alcohol containers, slurred speech, odd mannerisms, difficulty finding their license or having eyes that are glassy, watery or bloodshot.

Drivers are asked to step out of their vehicle when an odor or alcohol is present.

"We want to separate them from vehicles to see if it's from the vehicles or the person themselves," Dunlavy said.

An officer asks questions of the driver — if they have been drinking, how much, etc. — before administering standardized field sobriety tests.

"That's what we're being asked to do out here, to keep the roads safe for everybody," Dunlavy said.

The officers can choose whether or not to give a preliminary breath test, but those results are not admissible in court, Dunlavy said.

Dunlavy also said drivers can also become impaired as a result of medications. Officers can request blood, breath or urine tests, but drivers can refuse any or all of those tests. Individuals are supposed to be advised — using precise, standard wording — that their refusal means their license can be suspended for a year.

'It's not a right to drive; it's a privilege to drive," Dunlavy said. "...I've seen too many people hurt or injured or killed and the lives that are affected because of it. That's why we take it seriously."