Section 33.1 & How Intoxication Became A Form of Mens Rea: Episode 38 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada – A Long Read (Or Listen)

In this episode we will explore the “defence” of intoxication and how this common law concept became a form of statutory mens rea in s. 33.1 of the Criminal Code.

Intoxication, as a defence, is a difficult concept involving a clash of perspectives. One perspective finds fault with the defence as it absolves a morally blameworthy accused who, in committing an offence, willingly places himself in an uncontrollable state. The other perspective aligns with traditional criminal law precepts by permitting the defence on the basis that only those accused who have the required fault element of the crime should be punished. Both perspectives have informed this defence through legal interpretation and legislative response. In the end, intoxication as a defence is cumbersome, artificial, and in many respects unsatisfactory. The law and legislature has simply been unable to reconcile these differing, yet valid, perspectives and the defence remains a legal anomaly.   

It is in this background, we must view the present iteration of the defence as found partly in s. 33.1 of the Criminal Code. I say “partly” as the judicial interpretation of the defence still applies in some respects. Indeed, we can for ease of discussion refer to s. 33.1 as representing the first perspective I previously outlined - the concept of moral blameworthiness. Conversely, the judicial perspective, as ultimately represented in the Daviault case through the application of the Charter, represents the traditional criminal law principle of ensuring those without criminal intent, the morally innocent, are not punished.

Historically, these two perspectives on intoxication were not separated and the courts fashioned an awkward alliance between these two visions of responsibility:  the morally responsible accused who choses to become intoxicated and the morally innocent accused who was acting without mens rea and therefore not criminally responsible. To fulfill these two visions the common law limited the defence to certain types of offences. The case, which reflects this common law principle, is the 1920 House of Lords decision in DPP v Beard. The principle in Beard’s Case, as it became to be known, holds that intoxication is not a defence to a general intent offence but is a defence to a specific intent offence.

To understand this split, let’s review the difference between general and specific intent offences: Crimes of specific intent are offences with a special mental element required above and beyond the general mental element of the offence. Thus, a crime such as theft, which requires the taking of something with the intent to steal, is a specific intent offence. So too is murder with the specific intent to kill. Conversely, general intent offences involve no ulterior goal and only require an intention to act to achieve an immediate goal. Assault is an example of a general intent offence. Applying the principle in Beard’s Case, intoxication is a defence for a murder charge but not for an assault. Although the Supreme Court of Canada consistently disapproves of this specific/general distinction as artificial and confusing, it still remains an integral part of the intoxication nomenclature.

In the 1977 Leary decision, the SCC considered the Canadian position on intoxication creating a rule similar to Beard’s Case. This rule was reconsidered after the advent of the Charter in the 1988 Bernard decision. Bernard produced a fractured court with three separate concurring decisions and a strong dissent from the then Chief Justice Dickson and Justice Lamer, who also dissented in Leary.

Justice McIntyre’s majority decision upholds the Leary rule that intoxication is not a defence to a general intent offence. Both Leary and Bernard involved the general intent offences of rape and sexual assault, respectively. There were strong public policy reasons for eliminating intoxication as a defence to sexual offences. Even so, Justice McIntyre conceded that intoxication might apply to specific intent offences as in those circumstances intoxication could negate the formation of the specific intent required. This was also a “safe” position to hold as typically a specific intent offence involved proof of an underlying general intent offence. Therefore an acquittal for a specific intent offence on the basis of intoxication still permitted a conviction on the lesser and included general intent offence. An acquittal for murder, for instance, could result in a finding of guilt for manslaughter. The “morally” responsible accused would still be convicted.

In terms of the Charter, Justice McIntyre found sections 7 and 11(d) were not violated by the Leary rule, as the morally innocent would not be convicted on the basis that the voluntary consumption of an intoxicant would be criminally blameworthy. Further, the Crown must still prove mens rea, which could be inferred from the prohibited act by assuming a person intends the natural and probable consequences of his or her actions. If, however, voluntariness was an issue, meaning the accused was so intoxicated that his actions were not voluntary and therefore the so called “willing mind” aspect of the actus reus could not be proved, then the Crown could prove the acts were of a willing mind based on the proof of the accused self-induced intoxication.  

Justice McIntyre’s decision is difficult to reconcile. Proving mens rea on the incongruous premise that an intoxicated person intends the natural and probable consequences of their actions is debatable.  Although, as an aside, this concept has enjoyed recent SCC approval in the Walle case. See my blog on that case here.  Further, Justice McIntyre’s response to the voluntariness issue is a tautology: by filling in the proverbial fault “hole” with proof of intoxication, intoxication is no longer a “defence” or even a state of mind but is evidence of the state of mind, which is the key element of the an offence.

Justice Wilson, concurring in Bernard, offers a more “flexible” approach to the Leary rule permitting evidence of extreme intoxication “involving an absence of awareness akin to a state of insanity or automatism” to be left with the trier of fact in general intent offences. On the issue of mens rea, Justice Wilson does not approve of the substitution of self-induced intoxication for proof of the mental element component. In her view, the Crown is still required, even in general intent offences, to prove the minimal intent needed for conviction.

In the dissent, Chief Justice Dickson and Justice Lamer found the Leary rule violated the Charter and could not be saved under s.1. The rule, according to the minority, imposed a form of absolute liability, requiring no proof of mens rea for those general intent offences where intoxication could negate the mental element of the offence. They also firmly disapproved of the “artificial” distinction between specific and general offences. Intoxication, in their view, was relevant to mens rea and should be left to the “fair and responsible” trier of fact, who was able to sift through the evidence and determine if in fact intoxication was to such an extent that mens rea was absent.

Unsurprisingly, the Bernard decision attracted many critics, particularly Justice McIntyre’s position that self induced intoxication could substitute for the mental element of an offence.  There was the concern that the legally innocent, those accused whose level of intoxication was sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt on the mental element, were being convicted as a result of the Leary rule. Other commonwealth countries, such as Australia in the O’Connor case and New Zealand in the Kamipeli case, which previously supported the rule in Beard’s case, ultimately resiled from that ruling.  Eventually, Britain too modified the Beard’s Case ruling. Critics also lambasted the specific/general distinction as irrelevant and, as suggested by the dissent in Bernard, creating artificial barriers to valid defences.

In this climate, the SCC heard the Daviault case in 1994, also a sexual assault conviction, where the issue concerned the application of extreme intoxication as a defence to a general intent offence as considered by Justice Wilson in her decision in Bernard.  This time, the majority of the court found the Leary rule unconstitutional and agreed with Justice Wilson’s approach in Bernard that extreme intoxication was a defence to a general intent offence. In order to raise this defence, the accused, similar to a s.16 or automatism defence, must prove the defence on a balance of probability and is required to produce expert evidence in support.  The majority disagreed with Justice McIntyre that self-induced intoxication could provide the mens rea for the offence. The dissent, written by Justice Sopinka, found that the Leary rule was based on sound public policy reasons even though the specific and general intention distinction could lead to “illogical” results. The majority allowed the appeal and remitted the case for a new trial wherein the defence of intoxication could be raised.

The response to Daviault was swift. The government quickly legislated a response to the case and within a year a new amendment to the Code under s. 33.1 received Royal Assent.  Section 33.1, as suggested by the summary preceding the text of the Bill, amended the Criminal Codeby legislating a basis of criminal fault in relation to extreme self-induced intoxication and violence.”

The section, entitled “ self-induced intoxication,” reads as follows:

(1) It is not a defence to an offence referred to in subsection (3) that the accused, by reason of self-induced intoxication, lacked the general intent or the voluntariness required to commit the offence, where the accused departed markedly from the standard of care as described in subsection (2).

Criminal fault by reason of intoxication

 (2) For the purposes of this section, a person departs markedly from the standard of reasonable care       generally recognized in Canadian society and is thereby criminally at fault where the person, while in a state of self-induced intoxication that renders the person unaware of, or incapable of consciously controlling, their behaviour, voluntarily or involuntarily interferes or threatens to interfere with the bodily integrity of another person.

  Application

 (3) This section applies in respect of an offence under this Act or any other Act of Parliament that includes as an element an assault or any other interference or threat of interference by a person with the bodily integrity of another person.

The section is a difficult read.  Subsection 1, which confusingly refers to (2) and (3), essentially eliminates the Daviault exception to the Leary rule by legislating that extreme intoxication is not a defence for general intent offences, which interfere with or threaten to interfere with the ”bodily integrity” of another person.  The concept of interference with “bodily integrity” is broad and includes, as per the SCC Tessling case, the right not to be touched.

However, the subsection also substitutes the self-induced intoxication for the mens rea of the offence. In subsection 1, this substitution arises from the connection between the elimination of the defence and the accused’s conduct as “departed markedly from the standard of care as described in (2).”  Subsection (2), entitled Criminal fault by reason of intoxication, describes a marked departure from the norm, typical language used to explain criminal negligence from the SCC Tutton case, as occurring when the accused commits the offence “while in a state of self-induced intoxication that renders the person unaware of, or incapable of consciously controlling, their behaviour, voluntarily or involuntarily.” Therefore, the deficient state of the accused, both physically and mentally, fulfills the mental requirement of a criminal act. Needless to say, this artificial mens rea is contrary to traditional criminal law precepts and in violation of the Charter as articulated by Chief Justice Dickson and Justice Lamer in the Leary and Bernard dissents and as found by the majority in Daviault.

Even so, the legacy of Daviault still has precedential value. The courts never overruled the decision and s. 33.1 has not eliminated the defence for those general intent offences which do not involve the interference with the bodily integrity of another person nor has it eliminated the defence for specific intent offences. The 2007 SCC Daley case nicely outlines the application of the defence of intoxication in light of this.  Further, some courts in Ontario, such as in R v Cedeno, have found s. 33.1 unconstitutional, although oddly enough the constitutionality of the section has not be considered by appellate level courts.  The closest an appellate court has come to discussing the constitutionality of the section is in the 2001 North West Territories Court of Appeal case in R v Brenton where the court reversed a lower court decision finding the section unconstitutional on the basis that the lower court did not have a sufficient “factual foundation at trial upon which to mount a constitutional challenge to s. 33.1. In our respectful view, this was not a proper case in which to engage this important constitutional issue.”

There is a pressing need for the higher level courts to pronounce on this issue. Certainly, there is societal repugnance for the defence particularly where the crime committed involves sexual assault. However, there is now societal recognition that alcoholism and drug addiction can be a disease and may leave the affected person helpless to control their substance abuse problem. The concept of “self-induced” intoxication is brought into question in those situations and the subsequent warehousing of these offenders becomes part of the problem instead of the solution. There is, of course, still the doctrinal concern that the law, by not taking into account intoxication, is creating an artificial mental state where the accused does not actually have the blameworthy intent and yet is punished as if he or she did. In a very real sense, therefore, we are punishing the intoxication rather than the crime.