Involuntary Intoxication

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on December 3rd, 2012

What if an individual drinks from a punch bowl at a party — not knowing that the punch has been secretly “spiked” by a prankster — and is later pulled over for DUI?  What if another person takes a medication prescribed by his doctor — without being told that it will cause impairment — and is subsequently arrested for driving under the influence of drugs?

Are these people guilty of DUI — or can they assert the legal defense of involuntary intoxication?

A no-brainer, right?  After all, a person should not be punished for something that was not their fault — that they weren’t even aware of. 

Not surprisingly, however, the courts in their infinite wisdom have taken contradictory approaches to these situations.  Some take the position that DUI is a “strict liability” offense, and so any mental element such as intent or even knowledge is irrelevant.  See, for example, State v. Pistole, 476 N.E.2d 366.  Others permit the involuntary intoxication defense only where the intoxication was caused by use of force or threat of force from a third party.  A few recognize the defense on the grounds that some mens rea (mental culpability) must exist in any crime.  See, for example, State v. Wallace, 439 N.E.2d 851.  And at least one likens a claim of involuntary intoxication to an insanity defense:  Did the defendant know the difference between right and wrong?  See Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Smith, 831 A. 2d 636. 

In those states which permit the defense, however, the prosecution need not prove that the intoxication was voluntary:  The defendant has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it was involuntary — that is, he must prove his own innocence or stand convicted.
 

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