Extreme intoxication akin to automatism is a defense for some violent crimes, Canada’s Supreme Court rules

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TORONTO — Canada’s Supreme Court ruled Friday that criminal defendants may argue that they were so intoxicated that they were in a state of automatism and therefore not responsible for some violent crimes, including assault and sexual assault.

Canada’s highest court struck down a federal law that barred defendants from using that defense, finding that its “impact on the principles of fundamental justice is disproportionate to its overarching benefits.”

The highly anticipated decision concerned three separate cases in which men had consumed drugs and then committed violent offenses. In one, a man ingested magic mushrooms and then, proclaiming to be doing God’s will, broke into his father’s home, stabbed him to death and grievously wounded his father’s partner.

The defendants argued that they had essentially been rendered automatons — incapable of voluntary action or of forming intent to commit the act — and that the law barring such a defense violated their constitutional rights to the presumption of innocence and to life, liberty and security of the person.

The main questions before the justices were whether that law was unconstitutional, and if not, whether the limits it imposed on a suspect’s ability to defend himself or herself were nevertheless justified.

In a unanimous decision, the court answered both questions in the negative. It said the law’s “deleterious effects are serious and troubling” and that it had a “fundamental flaw”: the risk of wrongful conviction.

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“It contravenes virtually all the criminal law principles that the law relies upon to protect the morally innocent,” Justice Nicholas Kasirer wrote for the court. “It enables conviction where the accused acted involuntarily, where the accused did not possess the minimum level of fault required, and where the Crown has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt the essential elements of the offense.”

The issue has long divided lower courts and the Canadian public. It touches on how to balance the rights of the accused with those of the public, including vulnerable groups such as women and children.

The law in question was passed amid a vociferous backlash to a 1994 Supreme Court decision in the case of Henri Daviault. Daviault consumed several beers and most of a bottle of brandy before throwing a 65-year-old women who uses a wheelchair onto a bed and sexually assaulting her. He claimed to have no memory of the attack.

The court ruled that he had the right to raise as a defense that he was in a state of intoxication so extreme that it was akin to automatism or insanity, making him incapable of acting voluntarily or possessing the guilty mind needed for conviction.

Amid the ensuing outcry, Parliament in 1995 passed a law barring the accused from using as a defense that they were in a state of self-induced intoxication so extreme that they “lacked the general intent or voluntariness required to commit the offense” in general intent crimes involving violence against another person.

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that the law “undermines many of the core beliefs used to structure our system of criminal law.” It said Parliament could still pass laws in the area in a way that would “trench less on the rights of the accused,” including by creating a stand-alone offense of criminal intoxication.

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The ruling concerned cases from Ontario and Alberta.

The Alberta case involved Matthew Winston Brown, who had several mixed drinks, a few beers and some magic mushrooms at a party. He broke into two homes and assaulted the occupant of one. An Alberta trial court found the law unconstitutional and acquitted him, but a provincial appeals court disagreed.

One Ontario case was that of Thomas Chan, the man who consumed magic mushrooms before killing his father. In the other, David Sullivan tried to commit suicide by ingesting as many as 80 Wellbutrin tablets. He spoke of aliens, then stabbed his mother. An Ontario appeals court threw out lower court convictions for both men and ordered a new trial for Chan.

The Supreme Court restored Brown’s acquittal and confirmed Sullivan’s acquittal and the new trial for Chan.

The Ontario appeals court ruling drew a backlash. Some rights groups and analysts argued that it would present an obstacle to women seeking justice for sexual violence committed by perpetrators who were extremely drunk. Other analysts countered that the defense would be successful in only a minuscule number of cases and that there is a difference between extreme intoxication and extreme intoxication akin to automatism.

Canada’s Conservative Party decried the decision as “a massive step backwards for victims’ rights in Canada.”

David Lametti, Canada’s justice minister, said in a statement that the government is reviewing the decision “to determine its effect on victims as well as the criminal law” and that the ruling would not apply “to the vast majority of cases involving a person who commits a criminal offense while intoxicated.”

The Supreme Court said that “drunkenness, absent clear scientific evidence of automatism, is not a defense to general intent crimes, including crimes of violence such as sexual assault.”

“These are not drunkenness cases,” Kasirer wrote. “The accused in each of these appeals consumed drugs which, they argued, taken alone or in combination with alcohol, provoked psychotic, delusional and involuntary conduct, which are reactions not generally associated with drunkenness.”

The Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund, which was granted intervener status in the Supreme Court appeal, said that regardless of the ruling, there remains a need to improve responses to sexual violence.

“Drunkenness has never been, and is not now, a defense to sexual assault,” said Kat Owens, a project director for the group. “We are pleased to see the Supreme Court clearly and specifically spell that out.”