Written by attorney Vikram Singh Monder

Insanity Defense Triggered by Underlying Drug Addiction In a General Intent Crime

With a trial date set at the end of the month I began researching various defenses for a federal drug importation charge. The defense counsel has a duty to make reasonable investigations to ascertain the extent of any possible mental impairment. Seidel v. Merkle, 146 F.3d 750, 755 (9th Cir. 1998) (For mental health defenses, counsel cannot ignore abundant signs of mental illness); Evans v. Lewis, 855 F.2d 631, 637 (9th Cir. 1988); See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. at 691, 104 S.Ct. at 2066. The standard for effective counsel in these cases required the defense to negate the specific intent element of the charge. Even though the charge in our case is not a specific intent crime, there is a valid defense for a general intent crime based on insanity.

The test for insanity in this circuit is whether a person, as a result of a mental disease or defect lacks substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law. See Wade v. United States, 426 F.2d 64, 70-72 (9th Cir. 1970) (en banc). The defendant must introduce evidence that he was not legally responsible for his conduct to be found insane. This means the defendant must not have voluntarily induced his own incapacity. Therefore, voluntary intoxication combined with a mental disease will not support an insanity defense.

Voluntary drug induced intoxication as it relates to the defendant’s sanity (i.e. causing permanent, irreversible brain damage and mental illness) does not give rise to a valid defense in a general intent crime. United States v. Sneezer, 983 F.2d 920, 922 (9th Cir. 1992). If the drug induced intoxication is not within the control of the defendant but is caused by the underlying mental illness; then the involuntariness of the intoxication would give rise to a valid defense in a general intent crime. United States v. Henderson, 680 F.2d 659 (9th Cir. 1982).

In considering an insanity defense, the court must disregard whatever incapacitating effects were attributable to the voluntary ingestion of alcohol. United States v. Burnim, 576 F.2d 236 (9th Cir. 1978). Burnim involved a defendant with an organic brain defect who voluntarily became intoxicated and robbed a bank. Id. The combination of the defect and the voluntary intoxication was insufficient for an insanity defense. Id. at 237-38. On the other hand, there would be a valid insanity defense if the defect compelled him to become intoxicated and his intoxication therefore was involuntary. Henderson, 680 F.2d at 659. In this case, a valid insanity defense would suffice if the client’s prolonged drug use, that may have been evident at the time of the incident, was caused by a mental defect outside his control.

Additional resources provided by the author

For additional information on defenses to drug Importation charges coming across the border from Mexico please visit or call 619.405.0063

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