Is Being Drunk a Defense Against Criminal Charges in Utah?

Salt Lake City criminal lawyer

Needless to say, alcohol affects the way we think and act – sometimes dramatically.  Most people probably have at least one story of doing or saying something regrettable or out of character while intoxicated, but would such a defense hold up in court?  If someone commits a crime while drunk or under the influence of drugs, is he or she still guilty?  Or is intoxication a valid legal defense against criminal charges?  As Salt Lake City defense lawyer Darwin Overson will explain in this article, it’s a complex issue which varies from case to case.

Alcohol and Rape Charges: Prosecuting Intoxicated Defendants

In some cases, being intoxicated (or under the influence of drugs) is clearly not a defense against criminal charges.  The most obvious example is probably drunk driving or DUI, which is charged because the defendant was intoxicated while driving.  If the driver hadn’t been intoxicated, he or she would not have been arrested in the first place.

Intoxicated driving is also a factor in automobile homicide, a charge often referred to as vehicular manslaughter.  Under Utah Code § 76-5-207, automobile homicide is charged when the defendant “operates a motor vehicle in a negligent manner causing the death of another” while “under the influence of alcohol, any drug, or the combined influence of alcohol and any drug to a degree that renders the person incapable of safely operating a vehicle.”

shot glass of liquor, car key, and gavel lying on wooden table

While offenses like driving under the influence and vehicular manslaughter are very straightforward examples of cases where intoxication creates or increases criminal liability, other types of cases are murkier.  For instance, consider a scenario in which rape charges or aggravated sexual assault charges are filed against a defendant.  The defendant and the victim were both intoxicated during the alleged assault.

What happens next?  How does one or both parties’ intoxicated states during the alleged commission of the crime play into the evaluation of the defendant’s criminal liability?  What sorts of points might the prosecutor raise in court?

This exact legal scenario was addressed by the National District Attorneys Association, or NDAA, in a recent publication titled “Prosecuting Alcohol-Facilitated Sexual Assault.”  Acknowledging the complexity of such cases, the NDAA writes, “In drunk driving cases, the prosecution can show that the driver had a certain BAC [Blood Alcohol Content]; therefore, the driver is guilty.  Sexual assault cases involving alcohol are not as clear cut.”

The NDAA then goes on to state that, in the absence of a cut-and-dried BAC threshold, numerous factors must be evaluated when “distinguishing between drunken sex and rape.”  For example:

  • Was the victim injured?
  • Would the victim have a motive to lie about the defendant?
  • Did the alleged positions fit the alleged levels of intoxication?
    • “For example,” the NDAA writes, “it would be difficult (although not necessarily impossible) for a person who was too drunk to consent to intercourse to stand and have sex in a shower stall.”
  • How drunk was the defendant compared to the victim?
    • On this particular point, the NDAA writes that “The more sober [the defendant] was, the easier it is to show [that the defendant] was a predator, especially if the victim was extremely intoxicated.”

Is Voluntary Intoxication a Legal Defense in Utah?

From a legal standpoint, there are two types of intoxication: voluntary intoxication (choosing to consume a drink or drug), and involuntary intoxication (such as being threatened or coerced into drinking or taking a drug, or being drugged without the defendant’s consent or knowledge).

The circumstances under which the defendant became intoxicated, and the extent to which the resulting intoxication would have removed the possibility of criminal intent, impact the strength of the intoxication defense.  Utah Code § 76-2-306 provides the following:

  • “Voluntary intoxication shall not be a defense to a criminal charge…”
  • “…unless such intoxication negates the existence of the mental state which is an element of the offense.”
    • Willingly taking drugs or drinking alcohol is not a valid legal defense, unless the defendant’s intoxicated state took away a necessary element of the charges (i.e. the defendant made a drunken mistake rather than having malice or criminal intent).  For example, criminal trespass involves “knowing the person’s entry or presence is unlawful,” so if a drunk person tries to enter a neighbor’s home out of sheer confusion, intoxication might be a valid defense.
    • At the same time, merely stating the defendant acted out of character because they were drunk (e.g. shoplifting, committing vandalism, getting into a bar fight) is generally not a successful defense.
  • “However, if recklessness or criminal negligence establishes an element of an offense and the actor is unaware of the risk because of voluntary intoxication, his unawareness is immaterial in a prosecution for that offense.”
    • If the defendant acted recklessly or negligently, but wasn’t aware of it due to being intoxicated, it doesn’t matter with regard to prosecution.  It is “immaterial,” or insignificant.

If you or someone you love has been charged with a crime in Utah, it’s important that you speak to an experienced lawyer as soon as possible.  To set up a free and confidential legal consultation, call Salt Lake criminal defense attorney Darwin Overson at (801) 733-1308 today.  Darwin has over 16 years of experience handling a wide range of felonies and misdemeanors, and has obtained favorable outcomes for numerous clients.