intoxication | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

In the criminal law context, intoxication refers to a state of impairment caused by the consumption of alcohol or drugs, which can affect a person’s ability to form the required intent or mens rea for committing a crime.

Intoxication in criminal law involves the impairment, often from alcohol or drugs, that can affect an individual’s ability to form the required intent or “mens rea” to commit a crime.

Understanding Intoxication and Criminal Law

Criminal law sets a high bar for criminal responsibility. In most cases, it requires an individual to have both committed a harmful act and to have done so with a particular state of mind, known as the intent. However, the influence of alcohol or drugs—intoxication—can blur these lines.

The Role of Intention in Criminal Law

Every crime has specific elements that must be proven. One of these elements is intent, also referred to as mens rea, or guilty mind. Without the required intent, there can be no crime. The logic is that if you didn’t mean to do it, you’re not fully responsible.

Intoxication and Its Effect on Intent

The consumption of alcohol or drugs can impair an individual’s ability to form the necessary intent to commit a crime. This impairment is what we term intoxication. It could cloud a person’s judgment, making them unable to understand the consequences of their actions, or prevent them from forming the specific intent required for certain crimes.

Intoxication as a Defense

Given the potential impact of intoxication on intent, it’s understandable that intoxication might serve as a legal defense in some situations. When someone is accused of a crime, they might claim that they were intoxicated at the time and, therefore, lacked the necessary intent. In effect, the defense is saying: “I didn’t mean to do it because I was too impaired to form that intent.”

Limitations on the Intoxication Defense

However, the intoxication defense has its limits. There are two types of intoxication: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary intoxication occurs when a person knowingly consumes alcohol or drugs, while involuntary intoxication happens when a person becomes intoxicated without their consent or knowledge.

The intoxication defense often does not apply in the case of voluntary intoxication. The idea is that if you chose to get drunk or high, you should bear the consequences of your actions. This especially applies to crimes that require only a general intent, like driving under the influence. Furthermore, some jurisdictions don’t allow the intoxication defense for certain crimes, such as those involving strict liability.

In contrast, involuntary intoxication might provide a stronger defense. If you can show that you were drugged without your knowledge, for example, you might be able to argue that you lacked the intent to commit a crime. But again, this depends on the specific laws of the jurisdiction and the circumstances of the case.

Intoxication as an Element of Certain Offenses

While it can sometimes serve as a defense in criminal law, it can also, paradoxically, form an integral part of certain criminal offenses. Specifically, some crimes are defined by the state of being intoxicated.

Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

The most well-known example of it being an element of an offense is driving under the influence, also known as DUI. This crime occurs when an individual operates a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs. The main element that needs to be proven in DUI cases is the state of intoxication itself. Evidence like blood alcohol concentration (BAC), often obtained through breath, blood, or urine tests, is used to demonstrate this.

Public Intoxication

Public intoxication, also known as drunk and disorderly conduct, is another offense where it forms an integral part of the crime. This crime typically occurs when an individual is visibly drunk or impaired in a public place and is causing a disturbance. This type of behavior can put both the intoxicated person and others in danger. As such, laws exist to discourage such conduct.

Possession of a Controlled Substance

Sometimes, the physical effects of intoxication can indirectly lead to charges for other crimes. For instance, law enforcement officers might stop a person for erratic behavior caused by it. If this person is found to have illegal substances in their possession during the stop, they can be charged with possession of a controlled substance.

Intoxication Manslaughter

In some jurisdictions, there’s a specific crime known as intoxication manslaughter (or, in some places, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated). This offense involves causing the death of another person as a result of operating a motor vehicle or other heavy machinery while under the influence. Unlike standard manslaughter charges, the act of being intoxicated while operating the vehicle is a crucial component of this crime.


Intoxication can complicate matters in criminal law. While it may influence a person’s ability to form the intent necessary to commit a crime, the defense has its boundaries. Both voluntary and involuntary intoxication carry their own legal implications, often based on specific jurisdictional rules. Understanding these complexities is crucial to navigating the intersection of intoxication and criminal law.

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Last Modified: 05/27/2023

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