Is There an Involuntary Intoxication Defense in Pennsylvania?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Feb 13, 2020 | 0 Comments

In our last blog post, we detailed the voluntary intoxication defense in Pennsylvania. While somewhat rare, that defense argues that a criminal defendant cannot be liable for a crime because they were too intoxicated to be able to form the level of intent necessary to commit it.

The voluntary intoxication defense, however, raises an important question: Is there also an involuntary intoxication defense to a crime?

There is, and it's much different. It's also quite rare but does come up in some cases of driving under the influence (DUI). It has also never been explicitly adopted in Pennsylvania.

How Can Intoxication Be Involuntary?

One of the biggest reasons why involuntary intoxication is a rare defense to a criminal charge is that people nearly always intend to drink alcohol or use drugs. The intoxicating effects are the point of drinking or taking a pill or smoking marijuana.

However, there are some circumstances where this is not the case, like:

  • Drinking something without knowing that it is alcoholic
  • An alcoholic drink that has been drugged or “roofied”
  • Drinking alcohol without being aware that the effects would be elevated because of a medication
  • Being forced to drink alcohol
  • Taking an intoxicating drug by accident or deceit, like taking a pill that someone said was aspirin but was actually ecstasy
  • Having an unknown medical condition that makes alcohol or a drug more intoxicating than normal
  • A prescription has unforeseeable and intoxicating side effects

The Legal Defense of Involuntary Intoxication

When something like this happens and the person under the influence of the alcohol or drugs ends up committing a crime, there's a strong argument that they should not be held responsible. Many states analogize involuntary intoxication to a temporary period of legal incapacity – people are rendered unable to make decisions on their own and cannot be held culpable for their actions.

In Pennsylvania, though, courts have waffled on whether to allow evidence of involuntary intoxication in a criminal trial. While they agree that it would be up to the defendant to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that they were involuntarily intoxicated at the time of the offense, judges have always found a way to avoid directly answering the issue in a case.

For example, in Commonwealth v. Smith, a woman was charged for drunk driving. During the trial, she raised the involuntary intoxicated defense and argued that her prescription patch for pain medication had made the beers she drank more potent. When she was convicted and appealed, the appellate court relied on the facts that she'd voluntarily drank alcohol and did not read the warnings on the patch.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer at LLF Law Firm

The involuntary intoxication defense is a rare one to use, but it can be a strong defense option in the right circumstances.

Our Criminal Law Team are criminal defense lawyers who represents the accused in Philadelphia. Contact us online or call our law office at (888) 535-3686 if you have been accused of committing a crime and want to prove your innocence.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as well as in New Jersey and nationwide. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. With unparalleled experience occupying several roles in the criminal justice system outside of being an attorney, Joseph D. Lento can give you valuable behind-the-scenes insight as to what is happening during all phases of the legal process. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


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