Intoxication & Law: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:00 Definition
  • 1:06 Mens Rea: Criminal…
  • 2:13 Criminal Intent
  • 2:57 Voluntary Vs. Involuntary
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Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

Intoxication is a legal defense that may be used to prove that a criminal defendant lacked the required guilty mental state to be convicted of a crime. This lesson provides a general definition of intoxication and an introduction to how the defense is used.


Imagine you are a world-renowned chef. You've trained at the finest culinary institutes in the world, and people line up just to get a seat at your restaurant. As you prepare your signature dish, you are extra careful to follow the recipe to its exact specifics-- adding the right ingredients at the right time for the best results.

Believe it or not, criminal law is a lot like cooking. Each crime is defined by specific elements that must be proven in order to obtain a conviction. These elements are not unlike the ingredients in a recipe that must be artfully combined together in order to achieve the end result.

In criminal law, there are two general elements to every crime: the 'mens reas' (the criminal state of mind) and the 'actus reus' (the criminal act). Intoxication is a legal defense that a person charged with a crime (known as the defendant) may assert in order to avoid criminal responsibility. When a person's capacity to understand his actions is inhibited by the effects of alcohol or drugs, the intoxication defense may be used to avoid a conviction.

Mens Rea: The Criminal State of Mind

The intoxication defense is known as a 'mens rea' defense. This means that the defense is used to prove that the defendant lacked the requisite 'state of mind' to be convicted of a crime. The general idea behind the intoxication defense is relatively straightforward: if a defendant was under the influence of an intoxicating substance (like drugs or alcohol), he was incapable of forming a guilty state of mind.

Because intoxication is known to weaken inhibitions and cause memory loss, criminal liability can be reduced (or avoided altogether) if the defendant can prove that he was too intoxicated at the time of the offense to form a criminal state of mind. For example, in order to be convicted of residential burglary, the prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to enter a dwelling, and intended to remain and commit a crime therein. Imagine if the defendant was so intoxicated that he entered the dwelling under the false impression that the residence was 'his' home. The defendant's intoxication will serve to negate the state of mind element of the offense. Clearly, the defendant did not intend to burglarize a dwelling that he (drunkenly) believed was his own residence!

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