Is Intoxication a Defence?

Is Intoxication a Defence?

Most people enjoy a drink or two from time to time. That holds true for many Australians. Anyone who has had a few too many know being intoxicated loosens inhibitions and impacts judgment. Take buddies at a frat party, for instance, who encourage each other to do crazy stunts like butt chugs that none would otherwise do when sober. Even Tony Abbott was knocked out cold during some important voting in federal parliament in 2009 after a boozy dinner.

The irresponsible use of drugs, alcohol and other intoxicating substances should never be condoned. Nonetheless, intoxication may play a part in a not guilty verdict in a criminal case. No court excuses a person of criminal activity for being blind drunk. However, a conviction on certain offences requires a specific intent on the part of the accused to commit the crime. Intoxication may mean an individual lacked the state of mind to commit an offence and thus lacked the capacity to form an intent to commit the crime.

Meeting All the Elements of a Crime

In law, every crime is made up elements. Finding someone guilty requires proving every element of the crime. Elements of a crime are somewhat like a checklist of requirements. For example, in NSW, convicting someone charged with stealing requires proving all the following elements:

  1. The property taken belongs to someone other than the accused.
  2. The property was taken and carried away.
  3. The property was taken without the consent of the owner of the property.\

Beyond that, three more elements must be proven, all addressing the accused’s mental state at the time the property was taken:

  1. The property was taken with the intention of permanently depriving the owner of it.
  2. The property was taken without a claim of right made in good faith.
  3. The property was taken dishonestly.

The prosecution must use the facts of the case to prove each element was present when the crime occurred. Some elements address the mental state of the accused at the time of the commission of the crime. Proving all the elements of theft for instance may be difficult. While the first three elements of the crime are generally based upon somewhat concrete facts (was something stolen, by whom, who owned the property, etc.), the three elements addressing mental state can be much more challenging.

Intoxication and Specific Intent

Using intoxication as a defence only comes into play when trying to establish a defendant’s intent. Certain crimes include specific intent as one element. Those crimes require that a conviction rests, in part, on the defendant’s intention to bring about a particular consequence. As opposed to someone who commits a crime just to act in a certain manner, someone with specific intent enters into those actions with a purpose to achieve a particular outcome. For example, in theft or larceny, the Crown must prove there was a specific intent to permanently deprive another of his or her property.

The crimes requiring specific intent as an element cover a broad range including:

  • Murder
  • Wounding or grievous bodily harm with intent
  • Use of a weapon to resist arrest
  • Using chloroform to commit an offence
  • Administering poison to injure or to cause distress or pain
  • Assault with intent to have sexual intercourse
  • Kidnapping
  • Entering a dwelling-house
  • Wilfully destroying company books
  • Obtaining money etc by false or misleading statements
  • Possession of explosives or other articles with intent to destroy or damage property
  • Making, using or possessing false instruments
  • Hindering investigation or tampering with evidence
  • Corrupting witnesses and jurors
  • Assault with intent to have sexual intercourse
  • Assault with intent to rob
  • Killing with intent to steal

The above list in no way covers all crimes with a specific intent element. However, in such offences, intoxication enters the picture as a way of determining if the defendant possessed the specific intent to act in a way that results in the charged consequences regardless of intoxication. In criminal matters, the Crown has the burden of proving the accused’s intent to commit the crime despite intoxication, and the court decides whether intoxication affected the accused’s intent to commit the crime charged.

What Qualifies as Intoxication?

Achieving a state of intoxication may be achieved through the use of various substances, including illicit and prescription drugs, alcohol, and /or a combination of both. Under the NSW Liquor Act, when a person’s speech, balance, co-ordination or behaviour is noticeably affected, and it is reasonable to attribute their state to the consumption of liquor, they are intoxicated. The Liquor Act standard is intended for use by sellers of alcoholic beverages, but it also provides some guidance as to the circumstances that indicate intoxication.

Sometimes sober individuals act without forming a particular intention. Other times, severely intoxicated individuals still manage to act with a specific intent. Additionally, blacking out and having no recall of an act does not mean intent was not present.

Being in a state of intoxication may significantly influence a court’s or jury’s decision as to whether all of the required elements of a crime are present. It all depends upon whether they believe the evidence shows the defendant’s actions were voluntary or demonstrates the defendant possessed the intent to commit the crime. Intoxication is one factor taken into consideration when making such a decision. If the defence in a criminal case introduces intoxication as a defence, relying upon it to cast doubt upon the criminal prosecution and the evidence of intention or voluntariness, and makes a strong case that the intoxication made the defendant unable to form specific intent, he or she could be acquitted.

Intoxication has a long history of use as an excuse for various actions. However, when it comes to certain crimes, intoxication only applies as a defence in cases requiring specific intent, where “…an intention to cause a specific result is an element”. Regardless of its cause, it is not the intoxication itself that may help an accused criminal’s case, but rather the effect of it on his or her ability to form the necessary specific intent during the commission of the alleged crime.

If you committed a crime while intoxicated and are not sure if you can use it in your defence a criminal lawyer may be able to help.