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San Francisco DUI Lawyer - Case Law - Judicial Decision - People v. Mathson

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The Affirmative Defense of Involuntary Intoxication Causing Unconsciousness - Case Law By Board Certified DUI Lawyer Paul Burglin
People v. Mathson
___ Cal.Rptr.3d ___, 2012 WL 542716 (Cal.App. 3 Dist.)

An unanticipated reaction to medication, taken as prescribed, constitutes an “involuntary intoxication" defense in some jurisdictions. In California, a person who acts conscious is presumed conscious, but a defendant can overcome it by producing sufficient evidence to raise a reasonable doubt that he was unconscious when he acted during the commission of the alleged crime. People v. Hardy (1948) 33 Cal.2d 52. Involuntary intoxication that causes a state of unconsciousness is recognized. State v. Wilson (1967) 66 Cal.2d 749.

Suppose the individual knows, or should know based upon warning labels, medical advice, and/or past experience, that the use of Ambien might cause him to sleep-drive in an unconscious state. Does such knowledge negate an involuntary intoxication defense?

Here, defendant sought a jury instruction stating that one can only be found guilty of DUI under such circumstances if he knew that his taking Ambien would actually cause him to drive (not that it just might). The trial court rejected this proposed instruction and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

“Essentially, defendant asserts that until a person actually has a sleep driving experience, intoxication resulting in sleep driving is involuntary. We equate this to a rule that would provide Ambien users one free sleep-driving episode before they could be held criminally culpable, even though they knew the drug has caused sleep driving by others. Defendant does not cite any authority in support of this proposition."

After exhaustively analyzing the legal precedents on the defense of involuntary intoxication and unconsciousness, and brilliantly critiquing California’s pattern jury instructions on it, the Court recommends a baffling instruction that guts a legally recognized defense:

“Voluntary intoxication is not a defense to driving under the influence of drugs. If you conclude the defendant’s intoxication was voluntary, then the defendant’s unconsciousness resulting from that intoxication is not a defense to the crime. A person is voluntarily intoxicated if: (1) the person willingly and knowingly ingested a drug; (2) the drug was capable of producing an intoxicating effect and (3) the person knew or reasonably should have known that the drug could produce an intoxicating effect."

NOTE: The last sentence of this recommended instruction is what’s problematic, because knowledge that a drug can produce an intoxicating effect is not necessarily knowledge that it will produce a specific intoxicating effect (e.g., one that may cause a person to sleep-drive).

Furthermore, what about the fellow who takes every reasonable precaution to avoid driving after taking Ambien, but crawls out of bed in an unconscious state and somehow finds the key to a car and sleep drives? Should he be held criminally liable under such circumstances? Perhaps a “mistake of fact" or “involuntary act" defense lies in this situation.

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