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Intoxication is a defense available to defendants in criminal law cases. A defendant who raises this defense claims that he should not be held liable for a crime because his compromised mental state prevented him from forming the necessary mens rea.

Many states, such as California, distinguish between voluntary and involuntary intoxication and only allow the defense to be raised in cases of involuntary intoxication.

  • Involuntary intoxication is the unknowing ingestion of some intoxicating liquor, drug, or other substance, caused by force or fraud. Many jurisdictions recognize involuntary intoxication is a valid defense to a crime. In these jurisdictions, a defendant can admit evidence of his intoxication to show that he did not appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct when committing the crime and should not be held liable.
  • Voluntary intoxication is the willing ingestion or injection of any drink, drug, or other intoxicating substance that the defendant knows can produce an intoxicating effect. The Supreme Court in Montana v. Egelhoff held that states are constitutionally permitted to eliminate the voluntary intoxication defense, and many states have done so. For example, Delaware does not permit the defendant to admit any evidence of voluntary intoxication. Other states, such as California, allow defendants to raise voluntary intoxication only in cases of specific intent crimes (as opposed to general intent crimes) and only to prove whether the defendant acted with the necessary mens rea to establish criminal liability. However, evidence of voluntary intoxication cannot be brought to negate or lessen a charge due to the inability to form the mental state of the crime charged.

The state of Intoxication, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, can also be a crime in itself in certain circumstances, such as DWI/DUI violations and public intoxication.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]