As members of society we would like to believe that just because one is intoxicated while they committed a criminal offence, that this would not mitigate their guilt. In the case of Reniger v Fogossa in 1552 it was stated that, ‘if a person who is drunk kills another this shall be a felony… and yet he did it through ignorance, for when he was drunk he had no understanding nor memory; but in as much as that ignorance was occasioned by his own act and folly, it shall not be privileged thereby.’ In the modern age, the increasing amount of crimes being committed while one is intoxicated has resulted in the law tightening the scope on the issue. It has created rules to attempt to strike a balance between imposing criminal liability on the accused that had no mens rea, while trying to protect the public from those who deliberately took something to put them in a condition where they could not control their actions. Public policy is a strong factor in determining whether the defendant’s intoxication can be used to negate the mens rea of a crime.
When the accused uses alcohol or drugs to make carrying out the crime easier for them, there is no defence of intoxication available. In Attorney General for Northern Ireland v Gallagher, Gallagher was charged with murdering his wife. He made the decision to kill his wife while he was sane and sober and subsequently drank a bottle of whiskey to get so called ‘dutch courage’. At the time of the killing however he lacked the mens rea to commit the crime as he was drunk. This meant that the actus reus and the mens rea did not coincide at the time of the killing. Despite this, the House of Lords found the accused to be guilty. Lord Denning stated that, “he cannot rely on this self-induced drunkenness as a defence to a charge of murder… the wickedness of his mind before he got drunk is enough to condemn him, coupled with the act which he intended to do and did do.”
The basic rule for what amounts to a state of intoxication was established in DPP v Beard, in which Lord Birkenhead LC concluded that intoxication can be a defence where the accused was, at the time of the offence, so drunk as to be incapable of forming the specific intent necessary to commit serious crimes. However this can only operate as a defence to an offence if it negatives the intent. Before and since Beard, judges had taken the view that self-induced intoxication, however gross, cannot excuse crimes of basic intent.
The intent for a crime to be committed while intoxicated has been divided into two in the case DPP v Majewski; specific intent and basic intent. DPP v Majewski was focused around a defendant who was charged with three counts of assault occasioning actual bodily harm and three counts of assault on a constable in the execution of his duty. He wanted to rely on intoxication as a defence as he had consumed large quantities of alcohol and drugs at the time of the assaults. The trial judge directed the jury that self-induced intoxication was not available as a defence to these ‘basic intent’ crimes and distinguished between them and ‘specific intent’ crimes. Lord Elwyn-Jones LC referred to Beard as an example of ‘specific intent’ and the current case as ‘basic intent’ in regards to the defendant’s recklessness in becoming intoxicated being substituted for the mens rea that the prosecution would otherwise have to prove.
The ‘Majewski’ rule has not been followed in many countries. In the High Court of Australia, the distinction between basic and specific intention was rejected in R v O’Connor. The defendant was accused of stealing from a police car and stabbing a policeman in his pursuit from the car. He claimed to have taken alcohol and drugs and to have no recollection of the incident. He was convicted of murder and his appeal was allowed on the ground that the judge failed to direct the jury that voluntary drunkenness could have the effect of preventing the defendant from forming the specific intent...
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