Is Automatism or Involuntary Intoxication a Defense to DWI?

Since the start of the new year, I’ve been meaning to return to the court of appeals’ December 2011 opinion in State v. Clowers, __  N.C. App. __ , 720 S.E.2d 430 (2011), to explore the application of the defenses of automatism and involuntary intoxication to charges of impaired driving. Two months later, I’ve finally done it.

The Clowers court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury in his trial on impaired driving charges on the defense of automatism or unconsciousness, an instruction the defendant requested on the basis that he blacked out and had no memory of what happened on the night he allegedly drove while impaired. The defendant testified that it was not his habit to drink excessively.  He said that he went to a party in Raleigh around 10 p.m. on the evening before he was arrested and that he planned to stay overnight at the location of the party if he had more than a couple of drinks.  He testified that he did not remember anything after having a few drinks until “regaining consciousness” the next day while lying on a bench in a jail cell. The defendant argued that his unconsciousness could have resulted from the effects of voluntary consumption of alcohol combined with the effects of Alprazolam, a drug that he had been prescribed to control his panic attacks.

The Clowers court acknowledged that unconsciousness or automatism (a defense that Jeff discussed in this earlier post) is a complete defense to any criminal charge, regardless of the mental state required for commission of the offense, because “‘[t]he absence of consciousness not only precludes the existence of any specific mental state, but also excludes the possibility of a voluntary act without which there can be no criminal liability.’” 720 S.E.2d at  436 (quoting State v. Williams, 296 N.C. 693, 698-99 (1979)). Clowers went on to explain, however, that the unconsciousness defense does not apply to a case in which the person’s unconsciousness results from “‘voluntary intoxication . . . from the use of drugs or intoxicating liquor.’” Id. Rather, the defense applies “‘only to cases of the unconsciousness of persons of sound mind as, for example, somnambulists or persons suffering from the delirium of fever, epilepsy, a blow on the head or the involuntary taking of drugs or intoxicating liquor, and other cases in which there is no functioning of the conscious mind and the person’s acts are controlled solely by the subconscious mind.’” Id.

The Clowers court found no evidence demonstrating that the defendant’s consumption of alcohol, which resulted in an alcohol concentration of 0.25, was involuntary.  Furthermore, the court noted that despite the possible side effect of Alprazolam, the defendant testified that his ingestion of the anxiety drug also was voluntary. Therefore, the court concluded that the evidence did not support the delivery of an instruction to the jury on the defense of automatism.

Clowers’ holding aligns with the court’s determination several years ago in State v. Highsmith, 173 N.C. App. 600, 607 (2005), that the defendant was not entitled to an instruction on involuntary intoxication in his trial on impaired driving charges that arose from his driving after consuming prescription medication.  The Highsmith court explained that the voluntary consumption of prescription medication did not support such an instruction despite the defendant’s claims that he did not know the substance was intoxicating.

Read in isolation, these broad statements from Clowers and Highsmith might lead one to conclude that so long as the impairing substance was voluntarily consumed (that is, the person was not forced to consume it) the defenses automatism and involuntary intoxication are unavailable to a defendant charged with impaired driving. Such a conclusion strikes me as entirely warranted when applied to intoxication resulting from the voluntary ingestion of alcohol. See State v. Rose, 312 N.C. 441, 445 (1984) (rejecting argument that statutory provisions defining  impaired driving based on a specified alcohol concentration are void for vagueness, opining that while people may not know when their blood alcohol concentration reaches the per se level, they do “know the line exists” and “that drinking enough alcohol before or during driving may cause them to cross it”); see also Com. v. Taylor, 161 N.E. 245, 247 (Mass. 1928) (citing favorably a jury instruction noting that “‘the effects of liquor upon the mind and actions of men are well known to everybody’”). I’m not certain, however, that the court’s determinations foreclose altogether those defenses in cases when the person’s impairment results from consumption of a substance other than alcohol. The Highsmith court, in addition to considering the defendant’s arguments related to involuntary intoxication, analyzed the sufficiency of the State’s evidence.  And though the court ultimately rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence was insufficient to establish that he knowingly consumed an impairing substance, it did so on the basis that the defendant “knew or should have known” that the prescription medication he consumed, Floricet, could impair him, “and was thus on notice that, by driving after taking Floricet, he risked cross[ing] over the line into the territory of proscribed conduct.” 173 N.C. App. at 605 (internal quotations omitted).  Thus, Highsmith left open the possibility that a defendant might be legally excused from his conduct where he had no knowledge or reason to know that a substance might so impair him. Courts in other states have treated such claims similarly. See State v. Kain, 24 S.W.3d 816, 819 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2000) (stating that driving under the influence of a drug or intoxicant is a strict liability offense and that a defendant whose intoxication results from knowingly ingesting a prescription drug and alcohol cannot avail himself of the involuntary intoxication defense; finding it unnecessary under facts of case to determine whether a defense of involuntary intoxication can be used against a charge of driving while impaired); Nelson v. State, 149 S.W.3d 206, 210-12 (Tex. App. 2004) (concluding that defense of involuntary intoxication does not apply when, as is the case for impaired driving, the defendant’s mental state is not an element of the alleged offense, but further noting that appellant had been prescribed the medications previously and that the day of the incident was not the first time that appellant volitionally took the same doses of the drugs together at one time); Aliff v. State, 955 S.W.2d 891, 893 (Tex. App. 1997) (holding defendant was not entitled to involuntary intoxication instruction at trial for felony driving while intoxicated, as nothing indicated that defendant took the intoxicating drugs unknowingly or without knowledge of their effect and because involuntary intoxication was defense to criminal culpability and proof of culpable mental state was not required for DWI conviction).

This type of legal excuse might be available in circumstances in which the impairment was caused by an innocent mistake on the part of the defendant (for example, if the defendant took an impairing substance in reasonable belief that it was a benign one) or where unexpected impairment results from a medically prescribed drug.  See Com. v. Smith, 831 A.2d 636, 639-41 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2003) (setting out four situations in which involuntary intoxication has been recognized, but finding no evidence to support the defendant’s claim that she was not criminally culpable for driving under the influence because she was unaware that the prescription patch she was wearing would heighten the effects of the alcohol she voluntarily ingested), see also Com. v. Wallace, 439 N.E.2d 848, 850 (Mass. App. 1982) (stating that “it cannot seriously be contended that the legislature made it a crime to be forced at gunpoint to take drugs and drive or to drive after having unknowingly been slipped a drug within the statutory definition.”). On the other hand, it might not.  See State v. Borelli, 2004 WL 1615944 (Conn. Super. Ct.  June 24, 2004) (unpublished op.) (finding that defendant had requisite general intent for commission of impaired driving offense even though she may not have known that allergy medication she voluntarily ingested would cause her to become disoriented).

9 thoughts on “Is Automatism or Involuntary Intoxication a Defense to DWI?”

  1. I have found the prescription drug situations to be most interesting when the defendant claims an “unintended consequence” or adverse reaction to medication that led them to be essentially not conscious of their actions. Do I read this post right to say that your belief is that we do not have involuntary intoxication or automatism as a defense as long as the prescription label warned to not operate a vehicle or heavy machinery?

  2. Sean: If the defendant voluntarily consumed the substance that was affixed with the warning labels you describe, I think the defense of involuntary intoxication or automatism would NOT be available — at least in circumstances in which the defendant had a predictable reaction to the substance.

  3. I have a bit of an issue with the decision. I think the court could have left open the possibility that someone’s reaction from drinking could be so far outside of the norm that having, say, 2 drinks on top of meds should not produce that reaction. Here the guy had something like .25, so it’s really difficult to claim he wasn’t drinking a good amount.

  4. “This type of legal excuse might be available in circumstances in which the impairment was caused by an innocent mistake on the part of the defendant…”

    Do you think a possible legal excuse would include where a driver “accidentally” took the wrong one of her prescribed pills (for instance she thought she took a xanex in the morning but took an ambien instead)? It would seem to me that she would have to use proper care to be certain of which drug she was taking.

  5. What would be the deal as far as an individual that has many (5) prescriptions in which the has taken on the regular basis then consumed a couple alcoholic beverages, however on all 5 doctor prescribed medications was the lack of a warning label to not consume alcohol while taking. Now this individual then unknowingly got into a vehicle and drove resulting in a DWI. Would this person be held to the same standard as regarded above with the knowing intent to consume alcohol while taking prescription drugs thus waving the Involuntary Intoxication defense??

  6. What if a defendant took a benign antibiotic prescribed by a doctor, which had no labelling or indication that it might cause dizziness or that it shouldn’t be taken with alcohol. 2-3 days into the course of medication, the defendant drank a couple of drinks over several hours, drove and received a DUI.

    Afterwards the defendant discovers that not only is one of the main actions of this antibiotic is to destroy the very enzyme which helps the human body process alcohol, but that the doctor had also prescribed the medication at twice the common dosage.

    Would this be defensible under involuntary intoxication since the amount of alcohol consumed would’ve normally have left them with an alcohol BAC of approx .01-.02?

  7. I think in my opinion the accused is entitled to defense of intoxication. This is because, previously he had been drinking and had never blacked out, but for that day because he used the drug to control panics. Chances are high the drug could have contributed much to the intoxication and that is not his fault because the doctor did not provide instructions on not what to do after using the drug.

  8. what about someone who was detoxing from opiates, who had never detoxed before, and who voluntarily took their prescription clonazepam, but was tricked into drinking whiskey that induced a bomplete blackout. The person had written a note requesting not to be allowed to leave until the detox was finished, but ended up getting beat up and thrown out of the house while in a black out? would this defense apply?

  9. What about a fellow who has lost his sense of taste and smell as the result of a concussion, severing the olfactory nerves? This fellow,62,not a drinker, and at the home of his friends’ daughter, is given a Long Island Iced Tea thinking it is the sweet tea he grew up on, and he has Barrett’s esophagus, horrid reflux. Thinking he is caffeinated for an hour long drive home, he takes his melexocam and pantaprazole, both make him a drowsy, but he has just taken a huge glass of sugared tea, so he expects the usual result from caffeine and sugar. Insted he feels a spasm of the esophagus coming on, takes a Nitrostat (nitroglycerin) but has a sever spam and side swipes a car. Does he have a defense, noting that he has no record of offense, proof of the injury and supporting testimony from his physican?


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