When Does Intoxication Equal Involuntariness?

There’s something that’s always bothered me in DUI cases.

The state is arguing and must prove that the defendant was intoxicated to the point that they could not safely drive (their faculties to drive were materially and appreciably impaired).

At the same time, the state is arguing that any statements the defendant made should be admissible in court, that the defendant made a valid waiver of their Miranda rights, and that the defendant made a valid waiver of their implied consent rights…

If the defendant was intoxicated to the point where they could not safely drive, aren’t they also intoxicated to the point that any statements or waivers are involuntary?

DUI Arrests: How Can the Defendant Waive Their Miranda or Implied Consent Rights if They are Intoxicated?

It’s a paradox that the courts have easily solved by pretending that intoxication, even to the extent that a person is unable to drive, does not equal involuntariness. It is difficult to say at what level of intoxication the courts would find a statement or waiver involuntary…

For example, in State v. Brewer (reversed on other grounds because the trial court allowed the government to introduce a toxicology report from an out-of-state laboratory through a local pathologist who did not conduct the tests), the SC Supreme Court held that a videotaped interrogation was admissible even though the defendant:

  • Told officers she had taken both oxycontin and valium,
  • Was slurring her speech during the interview, and
  • Struggled to stay awake during the interview.

The Supreme Court noted with approval that the trial court excluded a second portion of the video, finding that the defendant’s condition deteriorated over the course of the interrogation, even though during the first portion of the interview that was played for jurors the defendant was slurring her speech, informed the officers she had taken valium and oxycontin, and was struggling to stay awake…

Prosecutors Gonna Prosecute

Is there an ethical issue when a prosecutor attempts to introduce evidence that is clearly inflammatory and prejudicial? I mean, the office of disciplinary counsel would probably say that’s fine, but, as a practical matter, isn’t this an ethical failure? Are prosecutors “ministers of justice,” or are they free to seek a conviction using any means necessary?

Although the trial court excluded the second portion of the video where the defendant “becomes incoherent and mentions something about a 300-degree fever,” the prosecutor argued for the court to admit the entire video, arguing that the video was admissible under Rule 404(b) because it demonstrated intent and a lack of mistake regarding the defendant’s careless handling of her medications (she was charged with homicide by child abuse for allegedly allowing an infant to consume medications).

Why not?

It’ll help prejudice the jury against the defendant and get a conviction, and the prosecutor knows that the appellate courts aren’t likely to reverse a conviction based on the defendant’s intoxication, right?

SC Case Law on Intoxication and Voluntariness

What do previous cases say about intoxication and voluntariness?

First, “[w]hether a statement was voluntarily given depends on the totality of the circumstances.” Withrow v. Williams, 507 U.S. 680, 693-94 (1993).

In State v. Saxon, 261 S.C. 523, 529, 201 S.E.2d 114, 117 (1973), the SC Supreme Court said:

The fact that one is intoxicated at the time a confession is made does not necessarily render him incapable of comprehending the meaning and effect of his words. Therefore, proof that an accused was intoxicated at the time he made a confession does not render the statement inadmissible as a matter of law, unless the accused’s intoxication was such that he did not realize what he was saying. Proof of intoxication, short of rendering the accused unconscious of what he is saying, “goes to the weight and credibility to be accorded to the confession, but does not require that the confession be excluded from evidence.”

If slurred speech, the officers’ knowledge that a suspect has taken both oxycontin and valium, and the defendant falling asleep during an interrogation are not enough, then “short of rendering the accused unconscious of what he is saying” can reasonably be interpreted as “short of the defendant being unconscious.”

In State v. Collins, 266 S.C. 566, 572–73, 225 S.E.2d 189, 193 (1976), the Court reaffirmed that “ [p]roof of accused’s intoxication, short of rendering him unconscious of what he is saying, does
not require, in every case, that statements he made while in that condition be excluded from evidence.”

The Court says that “intoxication… does not require, in every case,” that statements be excluded from evidence. But in what case does the SC Supreme Court require that statements be excluded from evidence? The Court implies that, in some extreme case, a statement would be excluded, but I haven’t seen that case…

Caselaw on Intoxication and Voluntariness in Other Jurisdictions

What do other jurisdictions say about it?

Mostly the same – courts just are not going to suppress evidence or statements based on a defendant’s intoxication:

  • United States v. Gaddy, 532 F.3d 783, 788 (8th Cir. 2008) (“Sleeplessness, alcohol use and drug use are relevant to our analysis, but [i]ntoxication and fatigue do not automatically render a confession involuntary. Instead, the test is whether these mental impairments caused the defendant’s will to be overborne.”)
  • Schwartz v. State, 483 P.3d 861, 866 (Wyo. 2021) (“However, intoxication, without more, does not render a statement involuntary. When an appellant alleges his statement was involuntary due to intoxication, we look to whether the appellant was so intoxicated . . . he was unable to appreciate the nature and consequences of his statements.”
  • Norton v. State, 745 S.E.2d 630 (Ga. 2013) (concluding although defendant admitted he had taken 15-20 pills of Xanax and had been drinking bourbon, he appeared to understand what was occurring, understood his Miranda rights, and spoke freely with officers).
  • State v. Phillips, 711 S.E.2d 122, 133 (N.C. 2011) (“While intoxication is a circumstance critical to the issue of voluntariness, intoxication at the time of a confession does not necessarily render it involuntary. It is simply a factor to be considered in determining voluntariness . . . An inculpatory statement is admissible unless the defendant is so intoxicated that he is unconscious of the meaning of his words.” (internal citations omitted)).

Criminal Defense Lawyers in Charleston, SC

Grant B. Smaldone is a SC DUI defense lawyer and criminal defense lawyer based in Charleston, SC.

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