In the vast majority of criminal offenses in Massachusetts, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to commit the criminal conduct (there are some crimes that require only that the defendant acted recklessly or negligently, but those crimes are the exception). Therefore if a criminal defendant caused injury to another person or damage to another person’s property by accident, he cannot be held criminally liable. Massachusetts law defines accident as an unexpected happening occurring without the defendant’s design or intention. Therefore, a defendant who trips and falls into another person cannot be convicted of assault and battery. A defendant who hits an errant golf shot that smashes the windshield of a car in the parking lot cannot be convicted of malicious destruction of property. In these scenarios, defendants might be subject to civil lawsuits from their victims, but they cannot be found guilty of crimes in criminal court.
What happens when an individual commits a crime after becoming intoxicated from drug or alcohol ingestion? Intoxication is generally not a defense to committing crimes. This legal principle makes sense – the judicial system does not want to excuse criminal behavior by people who voluntarily become intoxicated. There are two important exceptions. First, involuntary intoxication (which happens when the defendant could not have reasonably predicted he would become intoxicated from prescription medication) may constitute a defense. Second, both voluntary and involuntary intoxication can sometimes be used as a defense to specific-intent crimes.
- Most crimes are general-intent crimes, which means the Commonwealth must prove only that the defendant committed an illegal act. For example, an assault and battery is defined in Massachusetts as an “unconsented touching.” Therefore, if a defendant intentionally touches another person in an offensive way or without the victim’s permission, a crime has been committed and the defendant’s intoxication is not a defense. The Commonwealth does not need to prove the defendant intended the result of the crime (for example, an injury resulting from the assault and battery).
- Some crimes, on the other hand, are specific-intent crimes. With specific-intent crimes, the Commonwealth needs to prove the defendant committed an act with a specific intent to cause a certain outcome. What are some examples of specific-intent crimes?
- Larceny is committed when the defendant takes away the property of another person with the specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.
- Assault with Intent to Murder is committed when the defendant commits an assault against the victim with the specific intent to murder him.
- Breaking and Entering with Intent to Commit a Felony is committed when the defendant breaks into a home (or a building, a car or a boat) with the specific intent to commit a felony therein.
- Possession of Drugs with Intent to Distribute is committed when the defendant has drugs on his person or under his control and has the specific intent to give or sell the drugs to another person.
For all of these crimes, the defendant could commit an act (taking property, assaulting another person, breaking into a house, or possessing drugs) but if he is too drunk or high to intend the ultimate outcome (permanent deprivation, murder, commission of a felony, or distribution), he cannot be guilty of the specific-intent crime.