Intoxication as a Defense: Can it Hurt or Help your Criminal Case?

Intoxication as a Defense: Can it Hurt or Help your Criminal Case?

Some say America’s favorite pastime is baseball.  Others might say it’s drinking Busch Light.  I imagine some would even say it’s using drugs.  Or, maybe I’m just making up the last two for a somewhat amusing way to get you to continue reading this blog (because who reads law blogs, let’s be honest).  Regardless, drinking and drug use is part of American culture, for better or worse.  Therefore, understanding the intoxication defense is important because it may apply to your case.

That said, we’ve all heard stories of people committing heinous crimes — we’ve all heard stories of people committing these types of crimes while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  We all know someone who committed minor drug or alcohol related offenses (or you are that someone).  The question is: Does being under the influence change things when it comes to a person’s guilt?… Or should it?

In the eyes of the law, the short answer: Yes, being under the influence can affect a person’s guilt.  In application, this is commonly referred to as the intoxication defense, which has been battled out in American court rooms since the dawn of American jurisprudence.  The idea is that because of being intoxicated, the defendant did not understand the nature of his or her actions or know what he or she was doing.  However, obviously it’s not that simple.  Case in point: DWIs, in which being drunk is not a defense to driving — unless impairment was unknowingly caused by legal use of prescription drugs according to the terms of the prescription.

In other words, there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary intoxication, and the type of crime charged, which affects your ability to use this defense.

For example, last year the news reported a case of a woman accused of choking her 8-year-old daughter until the girl passed out, and then trying to kill her 3-year-old son.  Your kneejerk reaction may be to lock her up and throw away the key.  However, a closer look reveals a much different story.  Charges were dropped and the case dismissed because the violent outburst was caused by what the law calls involuntary intoxication.  Reportedly, a new steroid in the woman’s asthma medication was the “intoxicant” that caused the attack.  She had no idea she would react this way to her prescribed medication.  Her reaction was so severe that she was unable to “determine right from wrong”, her attorney reported.  The woman had no criminal record before this case, nor did she have any history of violent behavior.  This case is a textbook illustration of involuntary intoxication, which is a complete defense to a charged crime, meaning the person is not guilty.

For involuntary intoxication to be raised as a defense, the defendant must have been made so “mentally deficient” by reason of involuntary intoxication, that he/she did not understand the nature of the act or that it was wrong.  In addition, the defendant must have become intoxicated against his/her will, didn’t know a particular substance would have such an effect, or accidentally ingested the substance.

Voluntary intoxication, on the other hand, is usually raised as a defense when a defendant is offering intoxication as an explanation for his/her actions for the specific purpose of negating “intent” in cases where a person’s intent is an element of the crime charged.  In which case, it may be taken into consideration in determining such intent or state of mind. According to Minnesota Statute 609.075, voluntary intoxication may be used as a defense for crimes in which intent is a factor.  For example, under Minnesota law, First Degree Murder is defined as causing “the death of a human being with premeditation and with intent to effect the death of the person or of another”.  Voluntary intoxication may be used as a defense to negate the “with intent” element of First Degree Murder because a defendant’s state of mind factors into what constitutes First Degree Murder.  On the other end of the spectrum, to use the DWI example again, knowingly choosing to drink alcohol, getting drunk (with an alcohol concentration above .08), and then driving (and not remembering) is not a defense to being charged with a DWI because a person’s intent to drive is not an element of the crime.

Put another way: A person’s intent to do something matters.  The intoxication defense applies in limited circumstances and typically depends on whether the intoxication was voluntary or involuntary and what level of intent is required by the criminal charge.  Enlisting an attorney to help you determine whether the intoxication defense applies to your case can mean the difference between a dismissal and conviction.  To schedule a free consultation, call 612-999-3684 or send an email to

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