DRUNKARD IS EXCUSED: ALCOHOLISM AS A DEFENSE IN CRIMINAL LAW


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Adeyemi Oshunrinade

One of the issues in criminal law is whether one intoxicated and controlled by presence of alcohol in his system, should be deemed to have the required intent to commit the crime charged. Prior to the nineteenth century, drunkenness was not considered a defense in criminal prosecution. However, today, there are changes to the strict rule. Involuntary or innocent intoxication might be so severe that the defendant is found not guilty of the crime charged. The reasoning is that though, he might have committed the offense, he is without fault due to the role alcohol played, if indeed his intoxication is innocent.

On the other hand, one found to be voluntarily intoxicated is exculpated if the crime charged is one that requires a specific intent that is, a state of mind necessary to find one guilty of such crime. If at the time of commission the defendant was highly intoxicated such that he lacked the required state of mind to commit the crime, he is not liable for the offense. Also, one who suffers from delirium is treated the same as other forms of insanity although, such may have been due to the overuse of alcohol.

Normally, if the crime charged requires a specific intent the defendant is not guilty if at the time of commission, he was overcome by alcohol and completely intoxicated such that he lacked the state of mind necessary for the crime. However, it must be shown the defendant did not entertain the intent to commit such crime prior to his intoxication. For example, if Scott is charged with battery and evidence show he was so intoxicated and overcome by alcohol, that he did not even realize he was committing a crime, Scott will not be criminally liable, if further evidence revealed he had no intent to commit such crime or show any interest of doing so before the attack. Such a conclusion, does not mean Scott get to go free since he could be liable to his victim in a civil lawsuit.

Consider the following scenario, Dave was charged with burglary. The charges show that Dave broke into the house of Alex at night with the intent to steal. All evidence revealed that Dave opened the door of Alex’s house at night, went in and was found completely drunk inside sleeping. Dave was searched and evidence shows, he did not take anything from Alex’s home. Dave was tried and the jury concluded that though, Dave entered into Alex’s home, his mind was overcome with alcohol such that his state of mind could not entertain a burglary as charged. Based on such findings, Dave is not guilty of burglary because he lacked the specific intent required to commit such a felony, he did not take anything from the home and therefore, he is excusable.

Note that the intoxication can be voluntary or involuntary; as for involuntary intoxication, the issue is usually the way the intoxication is induced, and the extent to which it must go. As to the last point, “the intoxication must be sufficient to affect the reasoning of a defendant to the extent that he does not understand and appreciate the nature and consequences of his act, or, as is commonly said, that he does not know right from wrong.” (Burrows v. State, 38 Ariz. 99, 279 P. 1029 (1931) as in the case where a defendant is induced into drinking, “the influence exercised on the mind, must be such as to amount to duress or fraud.” (Burrows v. State, supra)

For voluntary intoxication, most jurisdictions have held fast to or adopted the common-law rule prohibiting consideration of voluntary intoxication in determining mens rea. Study show that most crimes especially serious felonies are committed by intoxicated offenders and to deny voluntary intoxication as a defense, will have the effect of increasing punishment for all unlawful acts and thus, serve as a deterrence to drunkenness or irresponsible behavior while intoxicated. Also, by disallowing such a defense is justifiable as it is against public policy to condone bad behavior, as in a case where a defendant who is voluntarily intoxicated decides to go behind the wheel of a vehicle and then killing an innocent pedestrian in the process.

This does not mean such a defendant is guilty of murder since murder is a specific intent crime, requiring malice aforethought as one element of the crime. But, he could be charged with the voluntary manslaughter of his victim. Nonetheless, the rule disallowing voluntary intoxication as a defense is not a fundamental principle despite its relevant acceptance. It has its origin from the common law and has no permanent allegiance. However, it remains supported as having a valid justification. (Montana v. Egelhoff, 516 U.S. 37, 116 S.Ct. 2013, 135 L.Ed.2d 361 (1996)).

There are cases where defendant’s intoxication is due to prescription given by the physician. The fact is such cases are involuntary and it has been held that Intoxication resulting from a physician’s prescription is involuntary, even if an overdose was inadvertently taken. (State v. Gilchrist, 15 Wash.App. 892, 552 P.2d 690 (1976)) also, “One could not properly be convicted of driving while under the influence of drugs, if the drug he was using had been given him by his doctor with no warning that its use while driving was prohibited.” (Crutchfield v. State, 627 P.2d 196 (Alaska 1981)).

Likewise, a defendant who strikes a woman with a car and did not stop to give aid, is guilty of not stopping and giving aid even if he did not know he had hit her, if the only reason given for not stopping, was that he was drunk (Martinez v. State, 137, Tex. Cr.R. 434, 128, S.W.2d 398 (1939)). This does not apply to a defendant whose unconsciousness was due to voluntary intoxication. (People v. Anderson, 87 Cal. App.2d 857, 197 P.2d 839 (1948)).

Whether the intoxication is voluntary or involuntary is a matter to be decided based on available evidence and the circumstances involved in each case. The fact is that the defense of intoxication is recognized and has been given consideration in criminal cases including the crime of homicide.

Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is the author of ‘Wills Law and Contests,’ ‘Constitutional Law-First Amendment,’ ‘Criminal Law-Homicide’ and ‘SAVING LOVE’ available at Amazon. Follow @san0670.

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Categories: Academic Journal, Criminal act, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, LAW

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