The Daily Digest, 4/11/11

The case today has a really fascinating discussion of (in)voluntary intoxication. Can alcoholism, itself, satisfy the standard for a mental disease or defect for the insanity defense? In other words, can a defendant prevail on the claim that his mental disease or defect that caused him to drink be alcoholism itself?

The Court says: “for the insanity defense to be available, the intoxication must have been beyond the defendant’s control: if the defendant can resist taking the first sip, then it is not available to him.

Would a genetic predisposition suffice for the Court to find that the intoxication was beyond the defendant’s control? Or, do Courts subscribe to the rational choice model that says, if you have a genetic predisposition but can resist taking the first sip, then you have a responsibility to do so. The way the Court has described it here, taking the first sip of alcohol that led to alcoholism is the the culpable act, rather than the sip that preceded the criminal action. This is much like the Decina line of cases concerning epilepsy — once you know you have epilepsy, you are responsible for preventing danger from your condition. So, too, here. Once you know you are predisposed to alcoholism, you might have a responsible to prevent the danger that could arise from your condition.

Alcoholism, Insanity, PTSD
U.S. v. Scott, 2011 WL 1327033 (E.D.Wash. 2011)
The Defendant, after being charged with an convicted of two counts of assault on federal employees, moved for a judgment of acquittal. The Court denied defendant’s motions for a judgment of acquittal. Defendant was brought to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center for excessive alcohol consumption. While there, he assaulted a nurse. Among the most heavily litigated issues at trial was the admissibility of expert testimony at trial concerning defendant’s claim for temporary insanity. Because voluntary intoxication is not a cognizable legal defense to a general intent crime of assault, defendant sought to prove that his PTSD drove him to become involuntarily intoxicated, which in turn rendered him temporarily insane at the time of the offense or otherwise unable to formulate the general intent necessary to assault. To prove this theory, the defense team retained three experts. After three Daubert evidentiary hearings to determine the admissibility of this expert testimony, the Court allowed testimony from two of the experts but not the third. The jury instructions included the following statement:

“[I]f the Defendant claims he became insane because he voluntarily ingested alcohol, the insanity defense is not available to him. If, on the other hand, he claims that a severe mental disease or defect caused him to become involuntarily intoxicated, the defense is not taken from him.”

During deliberations, the jury submitted a note asking whether substance abuse or alcoholism itself could be a severe mental disease or defect that could cause a person to involuntarily consume alcohol. The Court responded “No.” The defendant now claims that the trial court erred in response to the jury question. The Court held that for the insanity defense to be available, the intoxication must have been beyond the defendant’s control: if the defendant can resist taking the first sip, then it is not available to him. The jury’s legal question was properly answered in the negative. The crux of the jury’s question was whether alcoholism, by itself, can cause a person to involuntarily consume alcohol for insanity purposes. The case law is entirely clear that it cannot. It is well-settled that criminal responsibility attaches to voluntary alcoholic ingestion. Rather, courts have been unwilling to conclude that a defendant’s chronic alcoholism, by itself, compelled him to drink involuntarily, such that it could cause a condition amounting to insanity. The Court recognizes that the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court case law discussing the voluntariness of a chronic alcoholic’s criminal acts is several decades old. But it appears to be binding precedent. Indeed, the Court was unable to find any recent authority addressing this exact issue: whether for purposes of the insanity defense, Substance Abuse Disorder, now a DSM–IV diagnosis, is a “severe mental disease or defect” that can cause a person to involuntarily consume alcohol to the point of insanity. It may be that the medical landscape has changed such that Substance Abuse Disorder is now known to cause involuntary intoxication. However, with the current binding precedent, and the utter absence of any evidence on this point at trial, the Court concludes that alcohol dependence is not a severe mental disease or defect upon which an insanity defense may excuse criminal conduct undertaken while the defendant was intoxicated. Thus, the Court’s answer of “no” was a correct statement of law and correctly guided the jury’s deliberations. The interests of justice do not require a new trial.

About Nita A. Farahany

Professor of Law and Philosophy, Professor of Genome Sciences and Policy
This entry was posted in Behavioral Genetics, Criminal and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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