automatism

Appeal Court Expunges the Defence of Self-Induced Intoxication

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Last week, amidst great controversy, the Ontario Court of Appeal released its decision in the cases of R. v. Sullivan and R. v. Chan regarding the application of the defence of self-induced intoxication. 

This significant decision declared that section 33.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada (“CC”) is unconstitutional and of no force or effect.

SECTION 33.1 OF THE CRIMINAL CODE

Section 33.1 of the CC established that if an accused caused his/her own intoxication and commits a violent offence, he/she cannot claim that he/she was too intoxicated to be found guilty of even general intent offences (i.e. assault and sexual assault).  This applies even if he/she was intoxicated to the point of automatism (the performance of an action unconsciously or involuntarily), even if his/her acts were involuntary or he/she lacked the mental state to commit the violent act.

In its latest decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal determined that this law breached “virtually all the criminal law principles that the law relies upon to protect the morally innocent, including the venerable presumption of innocence”.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE SULLIVAN CASE?

In the case of David Sullivan, the accused over-consumed prescription medication in an attempt to take his own life.  The medication left him in a state of extreme psychosis.  During the psychotic episode, he believed he had captured an alien and proceeded to stab his mother.

At trial, Sullivan was found guilty of the violent offence despite Sullivan’s contention that his intoxication was involuntary as it resulted from a suicide attempt. 

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE CHAN CASE?

Thomas Chan, a high school student, stabbed and killed his father and severely injured his father’s partner during a psychotic episode after consuming magic mushrooms.  Chan believed he was a deity and that his father was the devil. 

At trial, Chan also attempted to rely upon the defence of non-mental disorder automatism.  Given section 33.1, which prohibits the use of automatism as a defence in cases of violence when an accused’s intoxication was self-inflicted, this defence failed and Chan was convicted.

THE COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION REGARDING SECTION 33.1 OF THE CRIMINAL CODE

The Court of Appeal found that section 33.1 of the CC violated the following sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

  1. The right to life, liberty and security of the person (section 7); and
  2. The right to the presumption of innocence (section 11(d)).

Under Canadian law, if a law violates a Charter right, in certain circumstances it can be justified by the Crown and upheld despite the violations.  In this case, the Appeal Court could not find benefits to the law, and instead found that the law was contrary to the principles of fundamental justice.

In its decision, the Court of Appeal wrote:

Put simply, the deleterious effects of s.33.1 include the contravention of virtually all the criminal law principles that the law relies upon to protect the morally innocent, including the venerable presumption of innocence. …

With very little true gain, Parliament has attempted to cast aside the bedrock of moral fault.

The Court of Appeal held that a person must act voluntarily to commit a crime.  Although lawmakers attempted to help victims attain justice with the introduction of section 33.1 of the CC, the law in actuality violated an accused’s rights by making them responsible for violence they had no control over.  Justices David Paciocco and David Watt wrote:

As for recognizing and promoting the equality, security and dignity of crime victims, it is obvious that those few victims who may see their offenders acquitted without s.33.1 will be poorly served.  They are victims, whether their attacked willed or intended the attack.  However, to convict an attacker of offences for which they do not bear the moral fault required by the Charter to void this outcome, is to replace on injustice for another, and at an intolerable cost to the core principles that animate criminal liability.

The Court of Appeal ordered a new trial for Chan as he was only convicted of offences that included an element of assault and those convictions depended upon section 33.1.  On the other hand, the Court of Appeal acquitted Sullivan of all of his charges.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The Crown prosecutor has advised that it will be seeking leave to appeal these decisions to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund has strongly expressed its frustration over this Court of Appeal decision and believes that this decision sends a message “that men can avoid accountability for their acts of violence against women and children through intoxication”.

However, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has expressed that the concern that the floodgates have been opened to men arguing the defence of intoxication are unwarranted.  An accused must still prove that he/she was in a state of automatism, not merely drunk.

Cara Zwibel, Director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, stated:

This is a rarely used provision.  It’s not this widespread, systemic concern.

We will continue to follow the law as it evolves in response to the recent Ontario Court of Appeal decisions and will report any developments in this blog.

In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding charges that have been laid against you or your legal rights, please contact the knowledgeable criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1047.  Our skilled criminal lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting their client’s rights.  For your convenience, we offer a 24-hour telephone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice.