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Is Intoxication (Being Drunk) a Valid Criminal Defense in Pennsylvania?

I was so drunk, I didn’t know what I was doing… can I still be found guilty?”

The criminal defense lawyers at Young, Marr & Associates invite you to read on about the differences between voluntary intoxication and involuntary intoxication and how each circumstance can affect your criminal case. Call today for a free consultation at (215) 372-8667 if you were arrested on criminal charges while under the influence of alcohol.

Types of Intoxication Defenses in Pennsylvania

There are two types of Intoxication Defenses that can be raised at trial and can act as an affirmative defense in the state of Pennsylvania: voluntary intoxication and involuntary intoxication.

Voluntary Intoxication

In general, the defense of voluntary intoxication cannot be used as a defense to criminal conduct. There is one exception, though, and it must not go without mentioning. The defense of voluntary intoxication can be raised when it negates a specific intent element crime. For example, the crime of burglary requires that the defendant have the “specific intent” to commit a crime inside of a dwelling. If it can be shown that the defendant did not have the specific intent to commit a crime once inside the dwelling due to his intoxication, this can serve as an affirmative defense to the specific intent crime of burglary, thereby exonerating the defendant of criminal responsibility.

In that same vein, the defense of voluntary intoxication can also be used to reduce a murder charge from a higher degree of murder to a lower degree of murder. The rationale behind the voluntary intoxication defense in the murder context is based on “specific intent,” as described above. For example, first-degree murder in Pennsylvania requires the defendant to have a “specific intent to kill.” While voluntary intoxication does not excuse or exonerate a defendant of criminal responsibility, evidence of the same can reduce the crime of first-degree murder to a lesser degree of murder if it can be shown that the defendant did not have the intent to kill anyone. For example, let’s say that the defendant was drunk and he committed a murder by accident. The defendant is then charged with first-degree murder, which requires that the defendant had the specific intent to kill someone. In this instance, evidence of voluntary intoxication can be introduced to show that the murder was an accident and that defendant did not have an intent to kill anyone. Therefore, the crime of murder of the first-degree, in this example, would be reduced to murder of the second- or third-degree.

Involuntary Intoxication

In Pennsylvania, the defense of involuntary intoxication rests on the premise that a defendant cannot be held criminally responsible for his actions if he did not know that he was susceptible or predisposed to criminal activity.

Involuntary Intoxication Laws in Pennsylvania

The defense of involuntary intoxication can be characterized in four types of situations:

  1. Where the intoxication was caused by the fault of another (through force, duress, fraud or contrivance).
  2. Where the intoxication was caused by an innocent mistake on the part of the defendant. For example, the defendant asked a friend for an Aspirin, and the friend gave the defendant a hallucinogenic pill.
  3. Where the defendant unknowingly suffers from a physiological or psychological condition that renders him abnormally susceptible to a legal intoxicant. In this type of situation, we are talking about someone who has an undiagnosed medical problem and does not know he/she is predisposed to act criminally. For example, let’s say the defendant has an undiagnosed psychiatric condition, and the defendant smokes marijuana and then commits a criminal trespass. The defense of involuntary intoxication could apply to show that the defendant was unaware that the marijuana could cause him to lose sense of his faculties and trespass onto another person’s land.
  4. Where unexpected intoxication results from a medically prescribed drug.

Involuntary Intoxication as a DUI Defense

In general, it is rare for a DUI defense lawyer to need to defend someone for involuntary intoxication in the context of a DUI, however it does come up in cases where the defendant is on prescription medication. For example, in a recent Pennsylvania case, the defendant was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. At the time of the DUI, the defendant was wearing a prescription duragestic patch for pain. The defendant raised the defense of involuntary intoxication arguing that she could not be held criminally responsible because she did not know that the prescription pain patch she was wearing could heighten the effects of the alcohol she consumed. The Court rejected the defense of involuntary intoxication, however, it noted that it’s rejection was simply based on the fact that the defendant’s involuntary intoxication was only produced from “voluntarily” consuming the alcohol which led to her intoxication. In this context, the intoxication was therefore deemed voluntary, and the Court rejected the defense of involuntary intoxication.

Who Has the Burden of Proof?

In every criminal case, the Commonwealth has the burden to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, with the intoxication defense—either voluntary intoxication or involuntary intoxication—the DEFENDANT has the burden to prove intoxication by a preponderance of evidence.

Evidence of intoxication can be shown by the defendant’s own testimony, however, it is most credible where this evidence is introduced through an independent source, such as an expert witness who can testify as to the effects the intoxication had on the defendant at the time the crime was committed.

Our Philadelphia and Bucks County Intoxication Defense Lawyers Can Help

The defense of intoxication is a very limited defense in Pennsylvania and can only be raised in specific situations. It is important that you speak with an experienced Bucks County, PA criminal defense lawyer who understands how this defense operates and how it can apply in your case. An experienced criminal lawyer at Young, Marr & Associates is available for a free consultation about your options. Call our Pennsylvania law offices today at (215) 372-8667.



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Commonwealth v. "H" (DUI case)

Client was charged with three separate DUI cases calling for mandatory minimum imprisonment of 90 days on each case. Client was advised to seek immediate intensive alcohol counseling. Client was sentenced to 1 year of house arrest after serving 3 days in the county prison.


Commonwealth v. "C" (Felony drug/Firearms case)

Client was charged with felony Delivery of drugs and illegal gun possession and was facing a mandatory 3-6 year prison sentence in the State prison system. Client was sentenced to one year of house arrest.


Commonwealth v. "S"

Client was charged with simple assault, domestic. After a hearing where evidence and testimony was presented, the entire case was dismissed by Judge Leonard Brown.


State of New Jersey v. "H"

Charges for young man charged with second degree aggravated assault were downgraded to third degree and he was accepted into the County Pretrial Intervention program with charges to be dismissed and record expunged after one year of misconduct free behavior.


We have decades of experience dealing with local police departments, prosecutors, and judges throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Anyone facing charges involving a criminal offense can expect to experience a heightened degree of emotional turmoil, for themselves, as well as their family members. Our team of highly qualified criminal law attorneys and expert legal support staff are committed to providing each of our client’s with the compassion and understanding they deserve, as well as an aggressive plan for representation at an affordable price.

As former prosecutors, we have a balanced and in-depth understanding of the criminal justice system and how the prosecution prepares cases. In addition, we have long-standing experience dealing with local police departments, prosecutors and judges throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

At Young, Marr and Associates, when we say “experience matters,” we mean it. Our lawyers, which include two former prosecutors and a former senior deputy district attorney bring more than three decades of criminal law experience, handling more than 10,000 criminal cases. It is precisely that experience that allows us to achieve outstanding results for our clients facing DUI, traffic, felony and misdemeanor charges in state, federal and juvenile courts.