When can a person claim that he did not know he was driving or did not know he was intoxicated?

The automatism defense or a defense based on claims of involuntary intoxication can often feel like fact patterns from a law school exam due to the oddity of the circumstances. Nevertheless, they can be useful in a DWI defense. Although automatism and involuntary intoxication are distinct defenses, they are regularly discussed in appellate opinions together.

Automatism: a state of mind in which a person, though capable of action, is not conscious of what the person is doing at the time the crime was alleged to have been committed. (ex. Sleepwalking)

Involuntary intoxication: a state of mind in which a person is conscious of his action, but unaware that his faculties have become appreciably impaired by a foreign substance. (ex. Unwittingly drinking spiked fruit punch)

Elements of Automatism and Involuntary Intoxication Defenses

To earn an instruction on the automatism defense, the Defendant needs to prove that his actions which led to impairment and to driving began in a state of unconsciousness. State v. Williams, 296 N.C. 693, 698, 252 S.E.2d 739, 743 (1979) (“if a person is in fact unconscious at the time he commits an act which would otherwise be criminal, he is not responsible therefore. The absence of consciousness not only precludes the existence of any specific mental state, but also excludes the possibility of a voluntary act without which there can be no criminal liability”); see also State v. Clowers, 720 S.E.2d 430 (N.C. App. 2011) (applying automatism defense analysis in the context of a DWI charge).

To earn an instruction on the involuntary intoxication defense, the Defendant needs to prove that he was not aware that he was consuming an impairing substance. See State v. Highsmith, 619 S.E.2d 586, 173 N.C. App. 600 (2005) (applying the involuntary intoxication defense in the context of DWI).

In regards to either of these defenses, an admission by defendant that impairing substances were voluntarily consumed (and defendant was aware or should have been aware of the impairing effects) very well may bar an instruction or argument regarding involuntary intoxication or automatism. Williams, 296 N.C. at 699, 252 S.E.2d at 743. (defense cannot be argued where the person’s mental state results from “voluntary intoxication from the use of drugs or intoxicating liquor”).

Burden of Proving the Automatism and Involuntary Intoxication Defenses

The burden is on the Defendant to prove these defenses to the jury’s satisfaction. Remind the jury (and point specifically to the judges instruction on this point) that this burden is not beyond reasonable doubt but only to the jury’s satisfaction.

Helpful evidence to meeting this burden might include, defendant’s medical history, testimony from the defendant and eyewitnesses, expert medical testimony, and notes and warnings about the normal side effects (and the expected duration of such side effects) of prescription medications.

Notice of Automatism and Involuntary Intoxication Defense

If the Defendant is charged with a felony variation of DWI, giving the Superior Court original jurisdiction of the case, the defendant may be required to give notice of the involuntary intoxication and automatism defenses upon a motion for such disclosure from the State. N.C.G.S. 15A-905(c)(1). When such notice is required, the notice must give specific information as to the nature and extent of a defense based upon either automatism or involuntary intoxication. N.C.G.S. 15A-905(c)(1)(b).

There is no requirement to give notice of these defenses if the defendant is charged with misdemeanor driving while impaired, the original jurisdiction of the court being with the district court.

Jury Instructions for Defenses of Automatism and Involuntary Intoxication

The North Carolina Pattern Jury Instruction on Automatism or Unconsciousness is as follows:

You may find there is evidence which tends to show that the defendant was physically unable to control his physical actions because of automatism or unconsciousness; that is a state of mind in which a person, though capable of action, is not conscious of what the person is doing at the time the crime was alleged to have been committed.

In this case, one element that the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that the act charged be done voluntarily. Therefore, unless you find from the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that at that time the defendant was able to exercise conscious control of the defendant’s physical actions, the defendant would not be guilty of the crime.

If the defendant was unable to act voluntarily the defendant would not be guilty of any offense.
The burden of persuasion rests on the defendant to establish this defense to the satisfaction of the jury. However, unlike the State, which must prove all the other elements beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant need only prove the defendant’s unconsciousness to your satisfaction. That is, the evidence taken as a whole must satisfy you, not beyond a reasonable doubt but simply to your satisfaction, that the defendant was unconscious at the time of the alleged offense.

N.C.P.I. Crim. 302.10. Moreover, the Automatism Instruction requires that there be language added to the mandate on the instruction related to the Driving While Impaired charge. Such additional language should include:

  1. Each time you come to the phrase, “. . . , it would be your duty to return a verdict of guilty of Driving While Impaired”, add the phrase, “. . . , unless you are satisfied that the defendant was not guilty by reason of unconsciousness.”
  2. At the end of the final mandate, insert the following as the final sentence: “If the State has failed to satisfy you beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was conscious, it would be your duty to return a verdict of not guilty by reason of unconsciousness.”

N.C.P.I. Crim. 302.10.

There does not appear to be a pattern jury instruction for the defense of involuntary intoxication. The defense should submit a written request with a suggested instruction similar to the instruction (and changes to the mandate on DWI) related to the Automatism Defense included above. Here is a sample instruction for involuntary intoxication:

You may find there is evidence tending to show that the defendant unknowingly consumed an impairing substance and thereby became involuntarily intoxicated.

In this case, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant became voluntarily intoxicated. Therefore, unless you find from the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that at that time the defendant knowingly consumed an impairing substance, the defendant would be not guilty of driving while impaired.

The burden of persuasion rests on the defendant to establish this defense to the satisfaction of the jury. However, unlike the State, which must prove all the other elements beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant need only prove the defendant’s involuntary intoxication to your satisfaction.

James Minick is founder and C.E.O. of Minick Law, P.C. James is committed to providing top notch legal services through his team of highly specialized legal professionals. James will defend your rights.

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