New Jersey Court Rejects “Pathological Intoxication” Defense in DWI Case

pillsProsecutors can offer evidence of impairment by several means other than alcohol in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, such as illegal drugs, prescription medications, or even certain over-the-counter medications. In one recent DWI case in New Jersey, a defendant claimed that, at the time of her arrest, she was having a reaction to sleeping pills and was not aware that she was driving. This is known as “pathological intoxication,” but while it might seem like a person in this situation lacks the same level of culpability as in other cases, New Jersey law does not allow it as a defense in DWI cases.

The New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice (CCJ) defines “pathological intoxication” as being “grossly excessive in degree, given the amount of the intoxicant, to which the actor does not know he is susceptible.” It is considered a type of “involuntary intoxication,” which New Jersey law contrasts with “self-induced intoxication.” To understand why New Jersey courts do not allow pathological or involuntary intoxication as a defense in DWI cases, it is important to know how an involuntary intoxication defense affects criminal cases.

New Jersey courts have held in criminal prosecutions that involuntary intoxication is not a defense unless the statute specifically allows it. (See, for example, State v. Kotter.) The key question when a defendant claims involuntary intoxication is whether or not the law requires the state to prove that the defendant had a certain “mental state,” meaning, for example, acting intentionally or recklessly.

A person who is involuntarily intoxicated might not have the capacity to “intend” to commit a particular crime, but prosecutors might still be able to prove a lesser included offense by showing that the person behaved recklessly. This is one of the main differences between the offenses of murder, which requires proof of intent, and manslaughter, which requires proof of recklessness. Many states include intoxicated manslaughter as a separate offense.

In 1990’s State v. Hammond, the New Jersey Supreme Court stated definitively that involuntary intoxication is not a defense in DWI cases. The court noted that the offense of DWI, as defined by New Jersey law, does not specify a required mental state. It is enough for the state to prove that a person was intoxicated and that they were driving a vehicle, without having to prove that they intended or were reckless about anything. The primary basis of the court’s decision, however, was that the offense of DWI is not part of the CCJ but instead the state’s Motor Vehicle Act, and therefore it is not subject to the same defenses as criminal cases. The New Jersey Appellate Division has affirmed this holding multiple times, such as in 2011’s State v. Newell and 2014’s State v. Zeller.

In the recent case mentioned above, the defendant claimed that she could not remember leaving her home in Pennsylvania and driving to New Jersey, where her vehicle crashed into a building. She testified that she had three glasses of wine that evening and then took the prescription sleep medication Ambien before going to bed. She claimed that the next thing she remembered was being in handcuffs.

The defendant argued that she could not be held liable for DWI because she had no idea she was even driving. The prosecutor countered that the DWI statute says nothing about a defendant’s mental state. The judge agreed with the state and found the defendant guilty of DWI.

A DWI charge or conviction in New Jersey can profoundly affect your life, which is why an effective defense requires careful planning and preparation. The experienced and skilled DWI attorneys at Levow DWI Law have dedicated their entire law practice to the defense of people who are facing DWI charges in New Jersey courts. Contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation. We are available 24/7 to help you.

More Blog Posts:

Conditional Guilty Plea Required in New Jersey DWI Cases to Preserve Certain Issues for Appeal, According to Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 15, 2016

Uncounseled Guilty Plea Should Not Count as a Prior Offense in New Jersey DWI Case, According to Appellate Division, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 13, 2016

New Jersey Supreme Court Declines to Find that the Constitution Requires Jury Trials in Third-Offense DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 2, 2016

Photo credit: Entheta (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.