The Charlotte Observer reported last week about a rather unusual encounter with a man who was arrested for impaired driving. The York police found the man trapped in his truck after he was involved in an accident on Friday night. Emergency responders had to force the doors of truck open to get the man out of the truck. Instead of blaming the accident on weather conditions or another driver, the man claimed that the accident resulted from his being chased by the Taliban and ISIS. Police described the man as “very disoriented.”
The police noticed that the man’s eyes were bloodshot, and when they asked him if he had been drinking, he replied, “Of course.” Because the man was taken to the hospital from the scene of the accident, police were not able to conduct field sobriety tests. When the police arrived at the hospital to take a blood sample from the man, he stated that “there was no need to get a blood sample because he was guilty of DUI” and had consumed a six-pack of beer earlier.
Although these facts seem like an open and shut case for impaired driving, sometimes a person who has otherwise violated a criminal statute can raise the defense of unconsciousness to escape criminal liability. Unconsciousness or automatism 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. However, the defense of unconsciousness is very difficult to raise successfully and is not available when the unconsciousness results from the voluntary ingestion of alcohol or drugs.
In the past ten years, North Carolina courts have looked at a few DWI cases in which the defendant raised the defense of unconsciousness. Most recently, in 2011, the court of appeals issued an opinion in the case State v. Clowers in which the defendant had taken an anti-anxiety medication to treat a panic attack. Later, he went out to a party and “had a few drinks.” The defendant claimed that he did not usually drink excessively, but that that night he planned to stay overnight in the event that he had “more than a couple of drinks.” Instead, the defendant drank a few drinks, and then the next think he remembered, he was in jail the next day after being arrested for impaired driving.
The defendant raised the defense of unconsciousness, although he acknowledged that “unconsciousness through voluntary consumption of alcohol or drugs does not support an instruction as to automatism or unconsciousness.” However, he 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 noted that, in connection with the defense of unconsciousness, the North Carolina Supreme Court has 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.
However, 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 concluded that even though there might have been a possible side effect of the medication combined with the alcohol, the ingestion of both the alcohol and the anti-anxiety medication was voluntary. Therefore, the court concluded that the automatism defense was not available to the defendant.
Prior to Clowers, the court of appeals looked at another DWI case involving a defendant who tried to raise the defense of unconsciousness. In State v. Highsmith (2005), the defendant had been given pain medication at the dentist. On his way home, he was stopped for crossing the center line several times.
As part of its analysis, the court 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."
At the defendant’s trial in Highsmith, an expert testified that the 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.” Combining this testimony with the North Carolina Supreme Court’s description of the DWI statute, 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.”
With respect to 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.
Because the defendant took the medication voluntarily, he was not “forced to consume” it. Therefore, even if he did not know that the medication was intoxicating, he was not involuntarily intoxicated.
If you have been arrested for impaired driving, visit www.rflaw.net for legal help.