The “Involuntary Intoxication” Defense in New Jersey DWI Cases

Flaming cocktailsIndividuals charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey municipal courts can raise numerous possible defenses against the state’s charges. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, allows defendants to challenge the basis for a traffic stop that led to a DWI charge. If a court finds that the stop violated the defendant’s rights, it must suppress any evidence obtained as a result of that stop. This usually results in the dismissal of the case. Defendants can also challenge the validity of the state’s evidence, such as Alcotest results. Some defenses that are available in criminal cases in New Jersey may also be available in DWI cases, but since New Jersey treats DWI as a motor vehicle offense, their availability is limited. A recent decision by a Texas court shows how the defense of “involuntary intoxication” could apply in a DWI case. New Jersey, however, does not currently allow this defense.

The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense as operating a motor vehicle while “under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, or with blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or more. Most criminal statutes require proof that a defendant had a certain mental state, such as an intent to commit that specific offense or recklessness as to the criminal nature of their actions. This is known to lawyers as mens rea. New Jersey’s DWI statute makes no mention of intent or any other mental state. While court decisions have delved further into the issue of mens rea in DWI cases, the statute only requires proof that a defendant was intoxicated or impaired.

The affirmative defense of “involuntary intoxication” allows a defendant to challenge the “intent” element of many criminal offenses by showing that the intoxication was either “not self-induced” or was “pathological.” The statute defines “pathological” as being far in excess of what would ordinarily be expected for the amount of intoxicant consumed by the defendant. Since it is an affirmative defense, the defendant has the burden of proving it by “clear and convincing evidence.” This is a lesser burden of proof than the state’s burden of proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

A recent decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, that state’s highest court for criminal cases, involved a claim of involuntary intoxication by a DWI defendant. According to the court’s decision, a work-related injury had caused the defendant to take various medications to deal with chronic back pain for over a decade. At the time of the arrest, he was reportedly taking three prescription medications:  a painkiller, a muscle relaxer, and a sleep aid. He was arrested for DWI after an accident and tested positive for all three substances.

Both the defendant and his wife testified that he had accidentally taken the sleep aid, which he usually took at night, on the morning of the accident. The court found that this constituted a voluntary act by the defendant, even if it was a mistake, meaning that he was not entitled to raise the involuntary intoxication defense. The New Jersey Supreme Court reached the conclusion that involuntary intoxication is not an available defense in DWI cases in 1990 on much simpler grounds—that defenses under the Code of Criminal Justice do not apply to motor vehicle offenses.

Evan Levow is a knowledgeable and skilled DWI attorney who has spent more than 20 years defending people’s rights in the New Jersey court system. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

Courts Address the Forcible Collection of Samples for Chemical Testing in DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 23, 2016

New Jersey Court Rejects “Pathological Intoxication” Defense in DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 1, 2016

Field Sobriety Tests Face Legal and Scientific Challenges in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 30, 2016

Photo credit: Nik Frey (niksan) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.