Laws May Ban Voluntary

Intoxication Defense

November 18, 1996

While doctors, lawmakers and political activists debate the "evils" of drugs and alcohol, the courts must deal with one issue that reaches beyond the legal status of these substances: the voluntary intoxication defense.

How many times have we seen substance abuse used as an excuse for criminal behavior? "I was too drunk to know what I was doing." "I couldn't help it; I was stoned out of my mind." Sound familiar?

Like many other jurisdictions, Ohio recognizes the defense of voluntary intoxication. If defendants can establish that they were so influenced by alcohol or drugs thay they could not form the purpose or have the knowledge required by the elements of the crime charged, they cannot be held accountable for that crime. This is true even if the defendant intended to become intoxicated.

The United States Supreme Court recently held that a Montana law was not unconstitutional simply because it prevented judges and juries from considering intoxication in determining whether a defendant intended to commit the crime charged. In reaching that decision, Justice Scalia noted that lawmakers should be free to decide what evidence is relevant in determining whether or not a crime has been committed.

Will this decision lead to other jurisdictions abandoning the voluntary intoxication defense? It's too early to tell. Nevertheless, it does open the door to new laws which would make criminals accountable for their own actions, regardless of how intoxicated they are. Maybe then the law will reflect what our common sense has always told us: "That's no excuse!"

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