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Automatism or Unconsciousness as Defense to DWI in North Carolina

Automatism or unconsciousness is a defense to a criminal charge when a person is unconscious at the time that he commits the criminal act. The reasoning behind this defense that the a lack of consciousness means that the criminal act was not voluntary and therefore there is no criminal liability. Does this mean that when a person drinks too much, blacks out and then drives while impaired then that person is not criminally liable under the defense of automatism? No, the defense of unconsciousness is not available when the unconsciousness results from the voluntary ingestion of alcohol or drugs.

In 2011, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case State v. Clowers. In Clowers, the defendant had taken an anti-anxiety medication to treat a panic attack. He went out around 10 p.m. to a party and “had a few drinks.” According to his testimony, he was not in the habit of drinking excessively, but that night he planned to stay overnight in the event that he had “more than a couple of drinks.” After having a few drinks, the defendant did not remember anything until “regaining consciousness” the next day in jail. The defendant did not remember driving the car or taking the Intoxilyzer.

The defendant argued that he was not guilty of dwi based on the defense of automatism or unconsciousness because “he blacked out and [had] no memory of what happened on the night in question.” The defendant acknowledged that “unconsciousness through voluntary consumption of alcohol or drugs does not support an instruction as to automatism or unconsciousness” but argued that in his case the unconsciousness might have been caused by the combined effects of the anti-anxiety medication and the alcohol.

The court began its analysis by noting that the

the essential elements of driving while impaired are “the defendant (1) [drove or operated] a vehicle, (2) upon a highway within the State, (3) while under the influence of intoxicating [substance].”

Next the court reviewed the existing case law on the automatism defense, noting that the North Carolina Supreme Court had stated that

[i]f a person is in fact unconscious at the time he commits an act which would otherwise be criminal, he is not responsible therefor. 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.... Unconsciousness is a complete, not a partial, defense to a criminal charge.

The court noted, however, that the North Carolina Supreme Court has limited the automatism defense by stating that it

does not apply to a case in which the mental state of the person in question is due to ... voluntary intoxication resulting from the use of drugs or intoxicating liquor, but applies only to cases of the unconsciousness of persons of sound mind as, for example, somnambulists or persons suffering from the delirium of fever, epilepsy, a blow on the head or the involuntary taking of drugs or intoxicating liquor, and other cases in which there is no functioning of the conscious mind and the person's acts are controlled solely by the subconscious mind.

The court reasoned that although the defendant did not intend to drink an excessive amount of alcohol, “there was no evidence that his consumption of alcohol was involuntary.” The same went for his ingestion of the anti-anxiety medication - even though there might have been a possible side effect of the medication combined with the alcohol, the ingestion of the anti-anxiety medication was voluntary. Therefore, the court held that the automatism defense was not available to the defendant.

In 2005, the court of appeals looked at another case, State v. Highsmith, which involved a DWI defendant who argued for the defense of unconsciousness. In Highsmith, the defendant was coming home from the dentist, where he had been given a pain medication, when he was stopped for crossing the center line several times.

In the court’s analysis, it looked at a statement from the North Carolina Supreme Court when it upheld the DWI statute against a claim of unconstitutional vagueness:

Although drivers may not know precisely when they cross the forbidden line, they do know the line exists; and they do know that drinking enough alcohol before or during driving may cause them to cross it. Persons who drink before or while driving take the risk they will cross over the line into the territory of proscribed conduct. This kind of forewarning is all the constitution requires. It is not a violation of constitutional protections "to require that one who goes perilously close to an area of proscribed conduct shall take the risk that he may cross the line."

An expert testified at trial that the pain medication that the defendant was given at the dentist was “an impairing substance and that a healthcare professional should have warned defendant of its effects.” The court reasoned that the defendant knew or should have known that this pain medication could impair him and was on notice that if he drove after taking it, he risked “cross[ing] over the line into the territory of proscribed conduct.”

The court also addressed the defendant’s argument that he was involuntarily intoxicated. The court stated that

[I]nvoluntary intoxication is a very rare thing, and can never exist where the person intoxicated knows what he is drinking, and drinks the intoxicant voluntarily, and without being made to do so by force or coercion. . . . [I]t is only when alcohol has been introduced into a person's system without his knowledge or by force majeure that his intoxication will be regarded as involuntary.

Even though the defendant did not know the pain medication was intoxicating, because he took it voluntarily, he was not “forced to consume the medication.” Therefore, he was not involuntarily intoxicated.

If you have been arrested for impaired driving, visit for legal help.

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