Extreme intoxication that resembles a state of automatism can be used as a defense for violent crimes, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in three cases related to drug use that led to stabbings, beatings and, in one case, death.
On Friday the court annulled a federal law of 1995 that blocks the use of the defense. A Liberal government passed the law after the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in 1994 that a man who had sexually assaulted a woman in a wheelchair should be allowed to present a defence. Henri Daviault had consumed seven or eight beers and a large bottle of brandy, and his defense argued that he was practically an automaton who didn’t know what he was doing.
This time, the court was unanimous, saying the fundamental flaw in the federal approach is that it risks wrongful conviction by allowing punishment for involuntary conduct. He said the law violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in its protection of the presumption of innocence, and what he called the fundamental principle of justice which says that conduct must be voluntary to be criminalized.
Federal law “permits conviction for conduct that a defendant was not aware of and could not control and therefore cannot be a ‘culpable act’ as defined by the underlying crimes,” Judge Nicholas wrote. Kasirer to court in one of the three cases. , that of Matthew Winston Brown of Alberta. “This result holds even when people ingest alcohol or drugs in common situations where there is no subjective or objective anticipation of automatism or violence.”
He added that the law “undermines many of the fundamental beliefs used to structure our criminal law system. It is difficult to imagine more serious limitations than the denial of voluntariness, mens rea [intent]and the presumption of innocence all in one.”
The court emphasized that its ruling has no impact on the rule that intoxication, except for a state resembling automatism, is not a defense for violent crimes. He also expressed doubts that the consumption of alcohol can lead to automatism but did not close the possibility of using the defense if the facts justify it.
And he said Parliament, which had sought to protect women and children in particular from substance-related violence, can still legislate in the area. For example, he said, Parliament could create a stand-alone offense of criminal intoxication or hold people criminally liable for violent actions based on a criminal negligence standard that their loss of control and harm to others was reasonably foreseeable at the time of the act. intoxication.
The court ruled Friday in two cases from Ontario and the one from Alberta.
In one of the Ontario cases, David Sullivan tried to kill himself by taking 30 to 80 pills of Wellbutrin, an antidepressant. He then started talking about aliens and stabbed his mother with two knives, stopping only when she yelled, “David, I’m your mother.” She survived but died of other causes before her trial. A judge said his actions were unintentional, but convicted him of aggravated assault and sentenced him to five years in prison.
In the second Ontario case, 19-year-old Thomas Chan used magic mushrooms with friends. Previously, he had been calm and pleasant, but this time, unable to get high from a small amount, he used more. He then went to his father’s house, yelled, “I am God,” climbed through a window, even though he had fingerprints entered into a home security system, and stabbed his father to death, then wounded his father. gravely to his father’s partner. A judge accepted that he did not know what he was doing but convicted him because the self-induced automatism defense was time-barred. He was also sentenced to five years in prison.
The Ontario Court of Appeal threw out both convictions, saying the Bill of Rights and Freedoms protects the “morally innocent” from being punished as criminals.
In the Alberta case, Mr. Brown, 27, consumed alcohol and magic mushrooms and at 3:45 a.m. went out naked in winter, broke into the homes of two strangers and assaulted a woman, leaving her hand forever . disabled. An investigating judge found him in a state of automatism and declared the defense ban unconstitutional. He was acquitted. The Alberta Court of Appeals threw out the acquittal, upheld the ban, and convicted him of aggravated assault.
Judge Kasirer said that Mr. Brown “might well be blamed for choosing to drink alcohol and ingest magic mushrooms…but that guilt cannot support criminal liability for the aggravated assault that occurred while he was in a state of automatism-like delirium.”
At the Supreme Court hearing in the Sullivan and Chan cases, Justice Michael Moldaver compared self-intoxication to the dangers of wielding a gun. An Ontario prosecutor argued that the law is aimed at protecting victims, especially women and children, and holding people accountable. The prosecutor said the law sends a clear message that anyone who uses hallucinogenic drugs such as methamphetamine, or even drinks excessively, will be criminally responsible for any crime he commits.
The Women’s Legal Action and Education Fund, speaking at the hearing, emphasized that the Charter protects not only accused persons but also victims, including the rights of women and children to equality, dignity and security. . Several provinces also weighed in, as did groups of criminal lawyers and civil liberties advocates.
The Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Mr. Chan and acquittals for Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Brown.