Being Drunk: A Defense to Criminal Charges?Voluntary intoxication typically is not an excuse for committing a crime. What is voluntary intoxication? Voluntary intoxication involves a person willingly drinking an excess of alcohol or taking illegal drugs. He or she voluntarily decided to become intoxified, which means he or she choose to consume the substance. Intoxication often leads a person to make poor choices. If someone has been charged with a criminal defense, voluntary intoxication is not a defense he or she should present in court and usually are held responsible for their actions, whether they knew what they were doing or not.

Defending Involuntary Intoxication
In California, a criminal defense attorney could argue on behalf of his or her client that specific intent to commit a crime did not exist because of the voluntary intoxication. Specific intent must be identified to commit someone of a crime in the state. It is important to note, however, that someone may be drunk but still form the specific intent needed to commit a crime. With that said, it can be difficult for a criminal defense lawyer to win a case involving voluntary intoxication.

Limited Circumstances
Intoxication is typically “involuntary” when someone forces drugs or alcohol upon the defendant or tricks the defendant into consuming them. It may also be involuntary when caused by medication that a doctor has prescribed or administered. But involuntary intoxication generally isn’t a defense where a substance has a particularly severe effect on a defendant who chose to consume the substance. And isn’t necessarily an automatic defense—the defendant must typically prove a very high level of intoxication. In practice, involuntary intoxication defenses rarely succeed.

Mental Status Defense
Whereas voluntary intoxication may, in limited circumstances, prevent a defendant from forming the specific intent required for certain crimes, involuntary intoxication may be a complete defense to a variety of charges. Depending on the law of the state, involuntary intoxication may excuse what would normally be criminal conduct if it:

  • prevents the defendant from understanding what he or she is doing
  • causes the defendant to be unable to differentiate between right and wrong
  • makes the defendant incapable of complying with the law, or
  • otherwise leaves the defendant lacking the culpable state of mind required for a conviction.

Example: Joe and a group of friends are playing cards at his house. They’re drinking beer; Joe is drinking soda. One of his friends slips a pill containing a synthetic drug into Joe’s soda can and Joe unwittingly consumes it. He soon goes into a complete stupor. Not knowing what he’s doing, he begins to attack his friends. If charged with assault, Joe may have a viable involuntary intoxication defense.