Intoxication is a defense available to criminal defendants on the basis that, because of the intoxication, the defendant did not understand the nature of his or her actions or know what he or she was doing. The intoxication defense applies in very limited circumstances and typically depends on whether the intoxication was voluntary or involuntary and what level of intent is required by the criminal charge.
Involuntary intoxication occurs when someone is tricked into consuming a substance like drugs or alcohol, or when someone is forced to do so. For instance, a woman who has a date rape drug placed in her drink without her knowledge is involuntarily intoxicated. Involuntary intoxication may also occur as a result of an allergy to, or the unintended effects of, a legal prescription medication.
If a charged crime is a specific intent crime, meaning that the criminal defendant must have had the specific intent to commit the crime in question, involuntary intoxication can be a defense to criminal charges if it prevents the defendant from forming the intent that is required. For instance, the defendant may not understand the nature of his or her actions or may be deemed incapable of obtaining the state of mind necessary to commit the crime. A common example is the crime of assault, which requires an intent to cause harm. If an individual becomes violent as a result of an involuntary intoxication and commits an assault, he or she may be able to argue that the intoxication prevented him or her from forming the intent to cause harm.
Involuntary intoxication can also be a defense to a general intent crime if the defendant can establish that the involuntary intoxication acted similarly to an insanity defense and prevented the defendant from understanding the nature of his or her actions or differentiating between right and wrong.
Establishing a defense of voluntary intoxication is much more difficult than involuntary intoxication. Under prevailing legal standards, voluntary intoxication is an applicable defense only for certain crimes, and, even in those circumstances, juries are far less likely to accept a defense of intoxication when the defendant brought the intoxication upon himself or herself.
Unlike involuntary intoxication, voluntary intoxication is never a defense to a general intent crime. However, voluntary intoxication may be used as a defense to specific intent crimes if, as with involuntary intoxication, it prevents the defendant from forming the criminal intent necessary to commit the crime. Thus, a defendant could argue voluntary intoxication as a defense to burglary because he was so intoxicated that he was unable to form an “intent to commit a crime therein.” However, in most states, the crime of voluntary intoxication is an affirmative defense, which means that the burden is on the defendant to prove that he or she lacked the necessary intent.
In some cases, the defense of voluntary intoxication does not completely absolve the defendant of liability but instead reduces the overall culpability for the crime. Thus, the defendant might find charges reduced to a lesser crime if he or she successfully proves that intoxication limited his or her intent or comprehension of the crime.