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Voluntary & Involuntary Intoxication Defense

Review of Using Intoxication as a Defense Under Criminal Law 

Voluntary and involuntary intoxication are both potential legal defenses in California criminal cases. If you are successful, these defenses could result in getting the charges reduced or even dismissed.

There are times when intoxication can be used as a legitimate defense when you are accused of certain crimes. While many crimes are committed under the influence, and while that does not necessarily excuse someone from guilt, alcohol, and drugs can still affect someone's intent.

Voluntary Intoxication as a Legal Defense
Voluntary intoxication is when the accused person willingly uses intoxicating drugs or alcohol.

For that reason, for criminal charges where the prosecution must prove specific intent to commit the crime, intoxication may be a valid defense.

There are two types of intoxication defenses in California: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary intoxication is when the accused willingly took drugs or alcohol, knowing it would impair their judgment. In other words, voluntary intoxication is when someone willingly uses any intoxicating drug, drink, or other substances when they know it could produce an intoxicating effect.

It's only a valid legal defense in cases involving specific intent crimes or those crimes where someone acts with an intent to commit a crime, such as Penal Code 187 PC murder.  

Involuntary intoxication is when the person was tricked or coerced into taking the substances or otherwise took them unknowingly. In other words, it's when somebody unknowingly consumes an intoxicating substance or does it due to someone else's force or trickery.

It's a complete defense in criminal cases, which means a defendant can use it to challenge any charge. Both defenses may apply in different situations with different outcomes. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will cover this topic in more detail below.

Voluntary Intoxication Defense – Penal Code 29.4 PC

Penal Code 29.4 PC is the California statute that lays out the legal defense of voluntary intoxication. Using voluntary intoxication as a defense is a bit more complicated because when you voluntarily ingest an intoxicating substance, you're assuming the risk of impaired judgment.

According to California Criminal Jury Instructions 3426, juries can only take voluntary intoxication into account in cases where prosecutors must prove a “specific intent” to commit a crime, and the intoxication casts a “reasonable doubt” on whether you had specific intent.

In other words, simply being drunk or high is not enough to get you off the hook, but it can make it more difficult for prosecutors to prove your intent. For that reason, the voluntary intoxication defense is considered only a “partial defense,'” one that might result in acquittal or, in some instances, possibly reduced charges or penalties if the jury takes your intoxication into account.

To use voluntary intoxication as a defense, you must first admit that you were intoxicated at the time of the crime. You then have to show that the intoxication caused you to act differently than you would have if you were sober. This can be done by presenting evidence that your mental state was impaired, that you couldn't think straight, or that you were not in control of your own body.

For purposes of this law, “voluntary intoxication” means someone voluntarily consumed something that had an intoxicating effect on them. Simply put, this type of intoxication includes the voluntary consuming, injecting, or taking another way any of the following:

  • Alcohol,
  • Drugs or controlled substances,
  • Any other type of intoxicating substance.

What is a Specific Intent Crime?

Using a voluntary intoxication defense doesn't excuse all criminal liability in every type of crime. As noted, it's only an option in cases involving specific intent crimes, which is where the defendant:

  • Had a specific intent to break the law, and
  • Had the intent to commit a criminal act

In other words, a defendant acts with a “criminal intent” if they had a specific mental state or state of mind to act with a particular purpose.

For instance, such as acting with the intent to commit fraud against somebody, such as Penal Code 503 PC embezzlement. Another example includes a theft crime where somebody intended to take property from the owner, such as Penal Code 459 PC burglary.

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Involuntary Intoxication Defense

According to the California Criminal Jury Instructions 3427, a person is considered involuntarily intoxicated if they “unknowingly ingested some intoxicating liquor, drug, or other substance” or were tricked or forced by someone else into doing so.

Involuntary Intoxication as a Legal Defense
Involuntary intoxication is when the accused unknowingly ingested intoxicating drugs or liquor.

This is a relatively tough defense to prove as it requires evidence that you were not aware of what you were taking and that it impaired your judgment. Typically, someone is “involuntarily intoxicated” if two primary factors can be proven:

  • Without prior knowledge, they consumed alcohol, drugs, or other intoxicating substance, or
  • Someone tricked or even forced them into consuming an intoxicating substance.

The classic example of involuntary intoxication occurs when someone drinks the contents in a punch bowl, unaware it was spiked with alcohol. Note that there are some limitations when using this defense.

However, if you successfully demonstrate that you were involuntarily intoxicated when committing the crime, you must be found not guilty of the criminal charge. This defense is so effective from a legal standpoint because California law indicates that no one can be found guilty of any criminal act if they were not conscious of their actions at the time.

By law, involuntary intoxication is considered a form of unconsciousness—and if you aren't conscious of your actions, then by definition, there is no way for prosecutors to prove you intended to commit those actions. The defenses related to a defendant's intoxication include unconsciousness, mistake of fact, and insanity.

What Are Some Examples?

Example 1: Jerry is on trial for Penal Code 245(a)(1) PC assault with a deadly weapon because he attacked a man with a tire iron in the parking lot of a bar. He claims he was hallucinating at the time because someone laced his drink. A blood test after the arrest revealed traces of ecstasy in his blood which he claims he never took.

Jerry may be able to claim involuntary intoxication because he believed he was only consuming alcohol but inadvertently took a drug known to cause hallucinations and make people aggressive.

Contact Eisner Gorin LLP for a Case Review
Contact Eisner Gorin LLP to examine all the details and legal options in your criminal case.

Example 2:Tom is charged with Penal Code 459 PC burglary. He admits he was high at the time but claims the weed he bought on the street had been laced with LSD, which caused him to commit a crime he had no prior intent to commit. A test sample of weed found on his person confirms the presence of LSD.

Tom will not be able to claim involuntary intoxication even though he didn't mean to take LSD. California courts have asserted that consuming any street drug comes with an assumed risk that you might consume a different drug than what you thought you were. However, Tom may be able to claim voluntary intoxication on the grounds that he had no specific intent to break into someone's home when he chose to smoke weed.

If you are charged with a crime and believe a voluntary or involuntary intoxication defense might apply to your case, we can provide you with some guidance on the process. 

Eisner Gorin LLP is a criminal defense law firm in Los Angeles County. We serve people throughout Southern California. You can contact our office for an initial case review by calling (310) 328-3776 or filling out our contact form.

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