Canada’s supreme court has ruled that defendants accused of violent crimes such as homicide and sexual assault can use self-induced extreme intoxication as a defense, striking down a federal law supported by women’s advocacy groups.
The supreme court said on Friday a law passed by parliament in 1995 that prohibits the defense was unconstitutional and violates the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Its impact on the principles of fundamental justice is disproportionate to its overarching public benefits. It should therefore be declared unconstitutional and of no force or effect,” writing for a unanimous supreme court, Justice Nicholas Kasirer said of the law.
At issue was whether defendants accused of a violent crime in a criminal court can raise extreme intoxication – known as “non-mental disorder automatism” – as a defense.
In doing so, defendants can claim their actions were involuntary as a result of taking drugs or alcohol and, as a result, they cannot be held criminally responsible for their actions.
Federal Justice Minister David Lametti said Ottawa was carefully reviewing the decision.
“It is critically important to emphasize that today’s decision does not apply to the vast majority of cases involving a person who commits a criminal offence while intoxicated,” he said in a statement.
The court said it is the law in Canada that intoxication short of automatism is not a defense for the kind of violent crime at issue.
Canadian courts have been divided on the matter, while women’s advocacy groups have said the law is needed to protect women and children as violence disproportionately affects them.
Four out of every five victims of intimate partner violence were women and women were five times more likely to experience sexual assault in 2019, based on Canadian government data.
The issue came before the supreme court last fall when justices heard arguments regarding the constitutionality of the statute as it pertained to three separate cases. In Friday’s ruling, the court said a trial can be ordered in one of the cases while restoring an acquittal in another.
The third case involved David Sullivan, who attempted suicide on 1 December 2013, by taking a prescription drug known to cause psychosis. In a psychotic state, he stabbed his mother, whom he thought was an alien. Sullivan was convicted of aggravated assault and assault with a weapon after the judge said he could not use an extreme intoxication defense.
The court of appeals, however, found the extreme intoxication law unconstitutional and acquitted Sullivan on both counts. Prosecutors appealed the ruling to the supreme court, which upheld his acquittal in Friday’s ruling.
Kasirer wrote that there are other paths for parliament to achieve its goals to address extreme intoxicated violence.
In 1994, the supreme court had ruled in favor of an extreme intoxication defense by a suspect who was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a wheelchair while he was drunk.
In response to the supreme court’s ruling, Canada’s parliament passed a law which prohibited defendants from using extreme intoxication as a defense in violent crime cases.