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Is Intoxication By Alcohol Or Drugs A Valid Defense To A Criminal Charge In Michigan?

by | Jan 20, 2022 | Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure |


It is possible that someone can become so intoxicated by a controlled substance or alcohol that they literally do not remember what happened the night before.  That person could have no recollection about any illegal or criminal activity they engaged in.  Is intoxication a defense to a criminal charge in Michigan?  How can someone be convicted if there is no memory of what happened?

The defense of intoxication is related to legal insanity or diminished capacity in that the defendant argues he or she lacked the mental capacity to intend for a crime to be committed.  Generally, a person cannot commit a crime by accident because they must possess mens rea, which is the intent or knowledge to engage in wrongdoing, to be convicted for the criminal act.  Michigan law distinguishes two types of intoxication defenses: voluntary or involuntary.  In most cases, voluntary intoxication where the defendant knowingly consumed alcohol or controlled substances is not a defense to a crime. Individuals choosing to excessive consume alcohol or drugs should have reason to know the consequences of that choice and should be held accountable for their actions therefrom.  However, involuntary intoxication could be a defense if the evidence shows the defendant was unexpectedly or accidentally intoxicated.

M Crim Jury Instruction 7.10 provides the following guidance for juries when the defense of intoxication is considered:

  • “(1) A person is not legally insane just because he or she was voluntarily intoxicated by alcohol or drugs at the time of the crime.”
  • “(2) Drug intoxication is not voluntary and may be a defense if the defendant was unexpectedly intoxicated by the use of a prescribed drug. Intoxication was not voluntary where:
    • (a) the defendant did not know or have reason to know that the prescribed drug was likely to be intoxicating,
    • (b) the prescribed drug, not another intoxicant, must have caused the defendant’s intoxication, and
    • (c) as a result of the intoxication, the defendant was rendered temporarily insane or lacked the mental ability to form the intent necessary to commit the crime charged.”
  • “(3) A person can become legally insane by the voluntary, continued use of mind-altering substances like alcohol or drugs if their use results in a settled condition of insanity before, during, and after the alleged offense.”
  • “(4) Of course, a mentally ill or intellectually disabled person can also be intoxicated, and both conditions may influence what he or she does. You should decide whether the defendant was mentally ill or intellectually disabled at the time of the crime. If he or she was, you should use the definitions I gave you to decide whether he or she was also legally insane.”

In People v Matulonis, 115 Mich App 263; 320 NW2d 238 (1982), the defendant was convicted by a jury of assault with intent to commit murder.  The defense presented an insanity defense and argued that he was mentally ill because his brain had physically deteriorated mostly due to chronic alcohol and drug abuse.  The defense medical experts testified that he did not know right from wrong due to his mental illness and, as a result, he was legally insane at the time of the offense.  The prosecutor vigorously argued that long-term alcohol use resulting in deterioration of the brain coupled with current drunkenness was an improper ground for legal insanity and the trial judge did not correct this misstatement of the law for the jury.  The Michigan Court of Appeals found that this error justified a new trial:

  • “Although the judge did inform the jury that a person could be mentally ill and intoxicated at the same time, he never stated that legal insanity precipitated by long-term alcohol abuse remained a viable defense theory. Moreover, he never corrected the misstatement that mental illness may not be due to a physical cause. Here, where the prosecutor seriously misstated the law, there was a danger that the jury would not understand that long-term voluntary intoxication resulting in physical brain deterioration could form the basis of a viable insanity defense. Had defense counsel acted skillfully, he would have asked the court to correct this misimpression. Had the judge acted to correct the misimpression, he would have given an additional instruction sua sponte to fully inform the jury of the viability of the defense theory. Neither did so, and the misstatement of the law was given to the jury.  We hold that here, where the prosecution’s clear misstatement of the law remained uncorrected and severely undermined a viable defense theory, the defendant has been deprived of a fair trial. This combination of events requires reversal of defendant’s conviction and a remand for a new trial.”  Id at 267-268.

The defense is not limited to simply showing long-term damage as a result of alcohol or drug use.  In People v Conrad, 148 Mich App 433; 385 NW2d 277 (1986), the defendant was found guilty but mentally ill of second-degree murder (after being charged with first degree murder) and sentenced to life in prison.  He alleged the insanity defense at trial, stating that he was under the influence of PCP when he stabbed the victim 45 times and completely lost control of his actions.  He further stated that he did not know he was ingesting PCP when he smoked the controlled substance.  The defense’s expert witness testified that PCP made him “absolutely insane” and the defendant was completely unable to control his impulses.  The trial court rejected these arguments and found that temporary insanity is no defense and there must be evidence that the accused was suffering from a settled or fixed insanity.   Even if caused by alcohol or controlled substance, it must reach the stage where the condition is permanent or incurable before the defendant can be found irresponsible.  The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial, finding that the defendant was deprived of a fair trial when his insanity defense was rejected.

  • “[I]f a defendant is actually and demonstrably rendered insane by the ingestion of mind-altering substances, an insanity defense is not absolutely precluded. In the instant case, the defendant began to exhibit irrational behavior on Sunday, July 11, six days before the murder. In addition, while he was lucid for a short period of time after his arrest, his mental condition then deteriorated, without additional drug usage, and it took him six weeks to recover. These facts, as well as the testimony of both experts, indicate that defendant was insane at the time he killed his brother. The defendant, with a proper presentation, might have been able to present a successful insanity defense. He was precluded from doing so by the trial court’s absolute rejection of any consideration of such a defense.”  Id at

Even in cases where defendant knowingly ingested a prescribed controlled substance, the intoxication defense can be available if there are unintended consequences.  In People v Caulley, 197 Mich App 177; 494 NW2d 853 (1992), the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder when he shot and killed his wife with a gun.  He did not deny shooting his wife, but he argued that he was insane or had diminished capacity due to the effect that his sleeping medication (“Halcion”) had on his mental state at the time of the shooting.  The defense’s medical expert witness stating that the medication contributed to psychotic behavior in someone already suffering from mental illness, so the defendant could not have known he would have acted this way from ingesting the prescription drug.  The trial judge refused to instruct the jury on the intoxication and insanity defense despite this evidence and the defendant was found guilty.  The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and found that the evidence supported the supplemental instructions were justified.  Although the defendant knowingly consumed the prescription drug, the unexpected result can contribute to involuntary intoxication:

  • “The characterization of intoxication as either voluntary or involuntary depends upon the facts of each case. Other jurisdictions have recognized that involuntary intoxication can be caused by the use of prescription medications. Such intoxication can constitute a complete defense if the defendant was unexpectedly intoxicated because of the ingestion of a medically prescribed drug.  In order to establish the intoxication is not voluntary, the defendant must not know or have reason to know that the prescribed drug is likely to have the intoxicating effect.  Second, the prescribed drug, not another intoxicant, must have caused the defendant’s intoxicated condition.  Third, the defendant must establish that as a result of the intoxicated condition, he was rendered temporarily insane.  Consequently, it is necessary to assess the effect of intoxication in conjunction with Michigan’s test for insanity.  It was defendant’s theory that he was rendered temporarily insane as a result of an involuntary intoxication caused by his use of prescription medication. Defendant presented sufficient evidence of his ingestion of Halcion in the period preceding the shooting, as well as expert testimony about its deleterious effects, to mandate the giving of instructions regarding this affirmative defense.  Id at 187-188 [Internal citations deleted].
  • “The trial court’s failure to provide the jury with a legal standard for assessing defendant’s sanity in the context of the influence the use of Halcion may have had was exacerbated by the court’s flawed preliminary instructions concerning voluntary intoxication and, effectively, may have prevented the jury from applying defendant’s theory to the facts. The trial court’s only instructions on how to evaluate the evidence of defendant’s Halcion-induced intoxication were the preliminary instructions that a person is not legally insane just because of voluntary intoxication. Without a clarifying instruction that distinguished involuntary and voluntary intoxication, the jury might have presumed that if it found defendant’s mental condition was caused in part by a Halcion-induced intoxication it could not find that he was legally insane. Without some dichotomy being drawn between voluntary and involuntary intoxication, defendant’s theory that his use of Halcion caused his insanity at the time of the shooting could have been used to convict him of the crime. In the absence of any guidance from the trial court, it is reasonable to assume that the jury simply treated the ingestion of Halcion as voluntary, without regard to unforeseen results or side effects experienced by defendant.” Id at 189.
  • “Therefore, we find that the failure to fully instruct the jury with regard to defendant’s theory requires a new trial. Upon retrial, the trial court must instruct the jury that if it determines that defendant was involuntarily intoxicated as a result of ingesting a prescription drug, Halcion, without knowledge of its side effects, the jury can then assess whether because of this involuntary intoxication defendant lacked the capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. The court should formulate instructions that will clarify that it is for the jury to decide, on the basis of the evidence, whether defendant was intoxicated, whether the intoxication was voluntary or involuntary, and what effect, if any, the intoxication had on defendant’s mental condition. If the jury finds that defendant was involuntarily intoxicated, then it may consider whether that could cause mental illness or legal insanity, as the court will define those terms.” Id at 189-190.

Voluntary intoxication is usually not a defense to a general intent crime, but may negate the element of a specific intent crime.  General intent is just the intent to perform the physical act such as pulling the trigger on a gun.  Specific intent is where the crime has an element which is required above the mental state to perform the physical act.  For example, assault with intent to murder is a specific intent crime because the physical assault act requires the additional special mental state that the defendant intended to kill the victim.  In People v Henry, 239 Mich App 140; 607 NW2d 767 (1999), the defendant was convicted of discharge of a firearm in an occupied structure.  He alleged that his voluntary intoxication was a defense because the crime requires specific intent.  The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed, upholding the conviction and finding that the crime was a general intent crime because it only required the defendant to pull the trigger in a building, so the defense was not available.  The intoxication defense will not apply to all situations.

A skilled criminal lawyer can help explore all of the possible defenses available to you under the law.  If the intoxication defense applies to your situation, then your attorney will ensure all of the proper notices and necessary expert witnesses are lined up to support that theory.  You only get one opportunity to properly present your case, so you must ensure that the best legal representation is in your corner to ensure the best outcome.

If you or a loved one is charged with any criminal offense, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.


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