Extreme intoxication resembling a state of automatism can be used as a defense for violent crime, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in three cases involving the use of drugs that led to stabbings, beatings and, in one case, a death.
On Friday the court struck down a federal law from 1995 that blocks the use of the defence. 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 had to be allowed to present the defence. Henri Daviault had consumed seven or eight beers and a large bottle of brandy, and his defense argued he was virtually an automaton who did not know what he was doing.
This time, the court was unanimously, saying the fundamental flaw in the federal approach is that it risks wrongful convictions by allowing punishment for involuntary conduct. It said the law violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in its protection of the presumption of innocence, and what it called the principle of fundamental justice that says conduct must be voluntary to be criminalized.
The federal law “enables conviction for conduct that an accused person was not aware of and could not control and therefore cannot be a ‘guilty act’ as defined by the underlying offenses,” Justice Nicholas Kasirer wrote for the court in one of the three cases , that of Matthew Winston Brown of Alberta. “This result follows even where individuals ingest alcohol or drugs in common‑place situations where there is no subjective or objective foresight of automatism or violence.”
He added that the law “undermines many of the core beliefs used to structure our system of criminal law. 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 stressed that its ruling has no impact on the rule that intoxication – short of a state that resembles automatism – is no defense for violent crime. It also expressed doubt that alcohol use can lead to automatism but did not close off the possibility of using the defense if the facts justify it.
And it said Parliament, which had sought to protect women and children in particular from violence linked to substance use, can still legislate in the area. For instance, it said, Parliament could create a standalone offense of criminal intoxication or hold people criminally responsible for violent actions based on a criminal negligence standard that their loss of control and the harm to others were reasonably foreseeable at the time of intoxication.
The court was ruling 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 Wellbutrin pills, an antidepressant. He then began talking about aliens and stabbed his mother with two knives, stopping only when she cried, “David, I’m your mother.” She survived but died of other causes before his trial. A judge said his actions were involuntary 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, it had been uneventful and pleasant, but on this occasion, unable to get high on a small amount, he used more. He then went to his father’s home, shouted, “I am God,” climbed through a window – even though he had fingerprint entry on a home security system – and stabbed his father to death, then severely wounded his father’s partner. A judge accepted that he did not know what he was doing but convicted him because the defense of self-induced automatism was barred. He, too, was sentenced to five years in prison.
The Ontario Court of Appeal threw out both those convictions, saying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the “morally innocent” from being punished as criminals.
In the Alberta case, Mr. Brown, a 27-year-old, used alcohol and magic mushrooms and at 3:45 in the morning went outside naked in winter, broke into two strangers’ homes and assaulted a woman, leaving her hand permanently disabled. A trial judge found him to have been in a state of automatism and declared the ban on the defense unconstitutional. He was acquired. The Alberta Court of Appeal threw out the acquittal, upheld the ban and convicted him of aggravated assault.
Justice Kasirer said Mr. Brown “might well be reproached for choosing to drink alcohol and ingest magic mushrooms … but that cannot blame ground criminal liability for the aggravated assault that occurred while he was in a state of delirium akin to automatism.”
At the Supreme Court’s hearing on the Sullivan and Chan cases, Justice Michael Moldaver likened self-induced intoxication to the dangers of picking up a gun. An Ontario prosecutor argued that the law aims to protect victims, especially women and children, and hold people accountable. The prosecutor said the law sends a clear message that anyone who uses hallucinogenic drugs such as crystal meth, or even drinks excessively, will be held criminally liable for any crimes they commit.
The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, intervening at the hearing, stressed that the Charter protects not just accused persons but victims, including the rights of women and children to equality, dignity and security. Several provinces also intervened, as did criminal-lawyers’ groups and civil libertarians.
The Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Mr. Chan and acquittals for Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Brown.