Vanderbilt Law Review


Meghan P. Ingle

First Page



The ever-controversial voluntary intoxication defense faces possible elimination by statutory abrogation. Originally developed by nineteenth-century common law courts, the defense recognizes that an intoxicated defendant may be incapable of possessing the mens rea specified by an offense. Increasingly criticized in recent years, the defense received a substantial blow to its continued vitality in the 1996 Supreme Court decision Montana v. Egelhoff. In a sharply divided opinion," a plurality of the Court held that a defendant does not possess a constitutional right to present evidence of voluntary intoxication in his defense. The Egelhoff decision has caused much commentary, both positive and negative, from legal scholars and practitioners. In its wake, a number of states have proposed or adopted statutes banning the use of the voluntary intoxication defense.

The involuntary intoxication defense faces a slower demise-a long descent into legal irrelevancy. The involuntary intoxication defense typically entitles a defendant to acquittal when his intoxication came about in a nonculpable manner. Currently, it remains available in every jurisdiction, at least in theory, and has been unimpaired by the Egelhoff holding. Despite the involuntary intoxication defense's apparent viability, it has been observed that, if one were to judge the state of the law from court opinions, the involuntary intoxication defense is "simply and completely non- existent."

Ensuring the survival of the intoxication defenses may justifiably be seen as a questionable cause to champion. As one law student observed, "Even with my limited experience in the law, I know that presenting a defense like 'My client was too drunk so he shouldn't be criminally liable' is not the most palatable option for a case." Yet, is it wise to allow our society's distaste for intoxicated offenders to abridge the basic right to present a defense? As currently formulated and applied, the intoxication defenses are problematic; however, revision, not abolition, should be the judicial and legislative response.

Part II of this Note discusses the genesis and subsequent history of the intoxication defenses. Part III explains the two primary versions of both the voluntary and involuntary intoxication defenses, and describes criticisms of each defense. Part IV examines various factors that may contribute to the current backlash against the intoxication defense. Part V examines the often problematic application of the intoxication defenses, showing how judges and juries may be effectively interpreting the defenses out of existence. Finally, Part VI proposes a statutory revision designed to better meet the goals of the intoxication defense.

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Criminal Law Commons