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Extreme intoxication similar to automatism is a defense for some violent crimes, says Supreme Court of Canada
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TORONTO — The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled Friday that the criminal defendants can argue that they were so intoxicated that they were in a state of automatism and therefore not responsible for certain violent crimes, including assault and sexual assault.

Canada’s highest court has struck down a federal law barring defendants to use this defence, concluding that its “impact on the principles of fundamental justice is disproportionate to its overriding benefits”.

The much-anticipated ruling concerned three separate cases in which men had used drugs and then committed violent offences. In one, a man ingested magic mushrooms and then, claiming to do God’s will, broke into his father’s house, stabbed him to death and seriously injured his father’s partner.

The defendants argued that they had essentially been turned into automatons – unable to act voluntarily or form the intent to commit the act – and that the law prohibiting such a defense violated their constitutional rights to the presumption of innocence. and life, liberty and security of the person.

The main questions put to the judges were whether this law was unconstitutional and, if not, whether the limits it placed on a suspect’s ability to defend himself were nevertheless justified.

In a unanimous decision, the court answered both questions in the negative. He said “the deleterious effects of the law are serious and disturbing” and that it had a “fundamental flaw”: the risk of wrongful conviction.

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“It violates virtually every principle of criminal law that the law relies on to protect morally innocent people,” Judge Nicholas Kasirer wrote for the court. “It allows for a conviction where the accused acted involuntarily, where the accused failed to commit the minimum level of fault required and where the Crown failed to prove the essential elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. “

The problem has the long divided lower courts and the Canadian public. It addresses how to balance the rights of the accused with those of the public, including vulnerable groups such as women and children.

The law in question was passed amid a violent backlash to a 1994 Supreme Court decision in the Henri Daviault case. Daviault consumed several beers and most of a bottle of brandy before throwing a 65-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair onto a bed and sexually assaulting her. He claimed to have no memory of the attack.

The court ruled that he was entitled to raise as a defense that he was in such an extreme state of intoxication that it amounted to automatism or insanity, rendering him incapable of acting willfully or possessing the guilty mind necessary for a conviction.

Amid the ensuing outcry, Parliament passed legislation in 1995 prohibiting defendants from raising as a defense that they were in a state of self-induced intoxication so extreme that they “did not have the ‘general intent or voluntariness required to commit the offence’ in general intent. crimes involving violence against another person.

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that the law “undermines many of the core beliefs used to structure our criminal law system.” He said Parliament could still pass laws in this area in a way that “less entrenches the rights of the accused”, including creating a stand-alone offense of criminal intoxication.

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The decision involved cases from Ontario and Alberta.

The Alberta case involved Matthew Winston Brown, who drank several cocktails, a few beers and magic mushrooms at a party. He broke into two houses and assaulted the occupant of one of them. An Alberta trial court declared the law unconstitutional and acquitted him, but a provincial appeals court disagreed.

An Ontario case was that of Thomas Chan, the man who consumed magic mushrooms before killing his father. In the other, David Sullivan attempted suicide by ingesting up to 80 Wellbutrin tablets. He talked about aliens, then stabbed his mother. An Ontario appeals court overturned lower court convictions for both men and ordered a new trial for Chan.

The Supreme Court restored Brown’s acquittal and affirmed Sullivan’s acquittal and new trial for Chan.

The Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision sparked a backlash. Some rights groups and analysts have argued that this would be a barrier for women seeking justice for sexual violence committed by perpetrators who have been extremely drunk. Other analysts countered that the defense would succeed only in a tiny number of cases and that there was a difference between extreme intoxication and extreme intoxication close to automatism.

The Conservative Party of Canada decried the decision as “a huge step backwards for victims’ rights in Canada.”

David Lametti, Canada’s Justice Minister, said in a statement that the government was reviewing the decision “to determine its effect on victims as well as the criminal law” and that the decision would not apply “to the vast majority cases involving a person who commits a criminal offense while intoxicated”.

The Supreme Court said that “drunkenness, in the absence of clear scientific evidence of automatism, is no defense against crimes of general intent, including crimes of violence such as sexual assault.”

“These are not cases of drunkenness,” Kasirer wrote. “The defendants in each of these calls used drugs which they claim, taken alone or in combination with alcohol, caused psychotic, delusional, and involuntary behaviors, which are reactions not usually associated with drunk.”

The Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund, which was granted intervener status in the Supreme Court’s appeal, said that whatever the decision, there remains a need to improve responses to sexual violence.

“Drunkenness has never been, and still is not, a defense against sexual assault,” said Kat Owens, project director for the group. “We are pleased to see that the Supreme Court spells it out clearly and specifically.”

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