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Jury Instructions And Voluntary Intoxication

On Behalf of | Jan 1, 2020 | Firm News

At the end of a criminal trial, the judge reads a set of instructions to the jury to guide them in their deliberations. These instructions are called “jury instructions” and while many of them are standard, they should be uniquely crafted to fit the particular issues in each criminal case and accurately state the law.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors often present the judge with competing versions of the instructions. Ultimately, the judge must decide which version of the instructions are given to the jury.

In State v. Fleck, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a decisive opinion regarding jury instructions. This case involved an assault charge where the defendant, coming down from seven-day binge, stabbed his girlfriend. By the time the defendant reached the hospital he was in a coma and survival was “uncertain.” At trial, the prosecutor objected to the defendant’s request for a voluntary-intoxication instruction. The district court agreed and refused to give the voluntary intoxication instruction to the jury. Therefore, the jury did not have an opportunity to factor the defendant’s intoxication into account and decide if he was too intoxicated to form the intent required to commit the assault.

This is important because courts distinguish between “general-intent” and “specific-intent” crimes. While general-intent crimes require the defendant to intentionally engage in the act that is prohibited by statute, specific-intent crimes require something in addition to the intentional act: one must intend to undertake the act andintend a specific consequence. Because the distinction between these crimes is not always intuitive it is imperative for judges to issue instructions that allow jurors to understand the distinction.

In a pretrial request for jury instructions the defendant in Fleck asked for a voluntary-intoxication instruction. He was denied. The defendant renewed this request during trial proceedings. Again, he was denied. However, when the proposed jury instructions were read to the jury, defense counsel did not object. Failing to object that last time made it more difficult for the defendant to succeed on appeal. In an odd decision, the trial court agreed to read the voluntary intoxication instruction for someof the assault charges, but not others. Predictably, the jury returned “not guilty” verdicts on the charges accompanied with the voluntary-intoxication instruction and “guilty” verdicts on those without the instruction.

Mr. Fleck appealed his conviction, arguing that assault based on the intentional infliction of bodily harm is a specific-intent crime requiring a voluntary-intoxication defense. The Court of Appeals agreed. In reaching its decision, the Minnesota Court of Appeals relied on the State v. Edrozo, 587 N.W.2d 719 (Minn. 1998): assault is a specific intent crime, requiring the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to cause bodily harm, and State v. Vance, 734 N.W.2d 650, where the supreme court held “intent to harm” is an essential element of an assault based on the intentional infliction of bodily harm. Would an individual on a seven-day binge and under the influence of 40 anti-psychotic pills have the requisite intent to harm another? The Court of Appeals did not think so. The case was reversed and remanded because the defendant was entitled to a jury instruction on the defense of voluntary-intoxication and the jury should be able to consider that when deliberating.

What does this mean? Your lawyer must be up-to-date on the law, have trial experience, know when to object, and know how to craft jury instructions. Otherwise, the jury does not have the correct information and could return an unjust verdict. If you are being accused of a serious crime, call Ryan Pacyga Criminal Defense at 612-474-5420 to speak to Mr. Pacyga, and please refer to the Recent Cases tab for additional information about results the firm has achieved in other similar cases, both in and out of court.