No, intoxication is still not an excuse for sexual assault, despite how many petitions you’ve seen

Recently, as I browse daily through my various social media timelines to see what’s happening outside my little quarantine bubble, I’ve noticed a crucial flaw in our current world of chaos: misinformation. 

One of the biggest problems in media providing such easy access to the news all over the world is the danger of constant misinformation. Recently, one of the more popular waves of petitions going around has been addressing a ruling passed by the Court of Appeals for Ontario. The petitions claim that they are trying to abolish a decision that would allow intoxication to be a valid defence in criminal cases regarding sexual assault. 

Fortunately, this is not true. The petitions claim the case’s decision would begin to allow the grounds of voluntary intoxication to be a defence against a criminal charge. The main concern is sexual assault. 

The case causing such controversy, R. v. Sullivan, addressed defendants from two previous cases, one involving murder and one involving aggravated assault. The defendants, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Chan, both suffered from hallucinations at the time of their crimes and, acting as ‘automatons,’ attacked and stabbed their loved ones. In each case, both defendants were conscious but unaware of their violent actions. They weren’t just high; they were both psychotic.

In the end, the judge decided that for these two men, it was necessary to overrule section 33.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which prevented intoxication from being used as a defence in violent crimes and sexual assault cases. 

The reason for this was that the judge saw it unfair to convict men who were not in control of their mental states at the time of the crimes. The law would have been punishing people for crimes that could not assign moral responsibility, subsequently violating the principles of fundamental justice. 

Both Mr. Chan and Mr. Sullivan entered states of intoxication that were proven to be akin to automatism at the time of the crimes and only harmed loved ones while acting under the fear of being threatened. 

So, what is automatism? Canadian courts define automatism as “a state of impaired consciousness, rather than unconsciousness, in which an individual, though capable of action, has no voluntary control over that action.”

 However, automatism is not an excuse or a justification for crime, and already exists as an extremely rare defense, due to the burden of the defendant having to medically establish automatism. To successfully employ automatism as criminal defence, it must be realistic and established on a balance of probabilities.

In short, the overruling of s. 33.1 was not to allow voluntary intoxication to be used as a defence in sexual assault cases, but rather to prevent two men from two very tragic circumstances, for receiving maximum sentences for crimes they did not know they were committing. 

Despite the extensive backlash from the community and a variety of feminist groups, it will be extremely unlikely for this ruling to allow intoxication, whether voluntary or not, used a defence in violent crimes and sexual assault cases. The petitions to appeal the decision would be calling to convict both, Mr. Chan and Mr. Sullivan. 

Intoxication is still not a viable defence for sexual assault, nor should it be. Ever. Simply because it was raised as a defence in this particular case, which does not involve either alcohol or sexual assault, does not mean it would ever hold up in court as a defence for a sexual assault case. 

Now, you can still argue that cases of sexual assault are so incredibly widespread that this should not even be considered a defence. It might indeed cause some complications and create a dangerous precedent for sexual assault survivors. It might be an unfortunate factor in preventing victims from speaking out against their attackers. But imagine how much more dangerous this ruling could be if misinformation like this continues to spread. 

For example, if people continue to believe what the media has been spreading, that self-induced intoxication is now a viable defence in criminal cases. You don’t have to agree with the court’s verdicts, but everyone must take it upon themselves to seek the truth. 

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