You may have seen headlines recently about a case that appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada last week. The case, R v Sullivan, brought two individuals before the nation’s highest court who sought to use the defence of extreme intoxication, or automatism, in response to the assault charges against them. We have written about this case previously, where we discussed the defence of self-intoxication and automatism further.

The case has made headlines once again for its apparent acceptance of the defence of extreme intoxication in crimes that involve bodily harm. The decision, however, has a lot more to it.

Crimes Were Committed While Under the Influence of Extreme Impairment

R v Sullivan concerns two individuals in unrelated circumstances who became extremely intoxicated and committed assault in their impaired state. One accused person, David Sullivan, had overdosed on a prescription drug prior to attacking and seriously injuring his mother with a knife. He was convicted on charges of aggravated assault and assault with a weapon. The second accused person, Thomas Chan, voluntarily took magic mushrooms and became impaired. He killed his father with a knife and seriously injured his father’s partner. Although Mr. Chan claimed a brain injury that exacerbated his condition of psychosis, it was ruled not to be a contributing factor in his actions. He was also convicted of manslaughter and aggravated assault.

A Constitutional Challenge Dates Back to the Initial Trials

Both Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Chan argued at their initial trials that a law that barred them from using the defence of automatism was unconstitutional. The law in question is section 33.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which prevents those charged with crimes involving assault or interference with the bodily integrity of another from using the defence of automatism.

Specifically, they argued that section 33.1 violates their section 7 and 11(d) rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 7 protects the right to life, liberty and security of the person. Section 11(d) protects one’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. These constitutional challenges were denied at the initial trial.

The Ontario Court of Appeal heard both Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Chan’s appeals together. In the end, Mr. Sullivan was acquitted, and Mr. Chan was ordered a new trial. The court ruled section 33.1 of the Criminal Code unconstitutional and that it could not be saved by section 1 of the Charter. Section 1 of the Charter is also known as the “reasonable limits clause” as it reflects that there may be instances where a Charter right can be justifiably infringed.

The Supreme Court of Canada Dismissed the Crown’s Appeal

The Supreme Court agreed with the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision. In ruling section 33.1 unconstitutional, the court explained why the provision breaches sections 7 and 11(d) Charter rights. Section 33.1 has the potential to imply guilt because some may consider that by intentionally becoming intoxicated, they were also intentional about committing the offence.

The provision can also violate the right to life, liberty and security of the person in that it allows someone to be convicted without the prosecution deciding if their action was voluntary and intentional. This is what happened with Mr. Chan, who was not able to make arguments about the voluntariness of his actions at trial because the defence was blocked.

This is a problem because of two elements of fundamental justice that are required for a person to be found guilty of an offence in Canada. The first is a “guilty mind,” which means that the offender is conscious of what they are doing in committing the offence. The second is a “guilty action,” which refers to the action taken to commit the offence. Actions for offences must have been made voluntarily.

When the defence of automatism is used successfully, it means that the accused person’s consciousness was so impaired that they lacked any voluntary control over their actions. In this state, the key elements of an offence are not present. Conviction on this basis amounts to a violation of the principles of fundamental justice, which make part of section 7 of the Charter.

As a result of these findings, the Supreme Court dismissed the Crown’s appeal, confirmed Mr. Sullivan’s acquittals, and ordered Mr. Chan a new trial.

What This Case Really Means

If you only read your criminal law news in the headlines, this ruling likely came as a surprise. But the reality is a lot less jarring than sensational headlines would have you believe. In fact, many would argue that the full decision actually has little to do with extreme intoxication and everything to do with how judges should interpret the law across cases in lower-level trial courts. Section 33.1 has been found unconstitutional and to be of no force and effect in some Ontario decisions dating back to 2010.

While, yes, individuals charged with assault are no longer blocked from using automatism as a defence, this does not mean that they will be successful. The reality is that successfully arguing the automatism defence is a very difficult thing to do. It needs to be established by relevant testimony of a qualified expert who provides enough evidence to support the defence of automatism. If a qualified expert is not able to provide enough evidence in support of the accused’s defence, the accused person’s actions are considered voluntary.

Contact the Criminal Lawyers at Hicks Adams to Protect Your Rights at Trial

The criminal defence lawyers at Hicks Adams understand the importance of ensuring that your Charter and constitutional rights are protected. Our seasoned team has experience across a range of criminal charges, including criminal harassment, fraud, assault, and extradition. We are conveniently located in downtown Toronto and represent clients at all levels of court throughout Ontario. For a free criminal defence consultation on your matter, reach out online or call 416-975-1700 (toll-free at 1-877-975-1700).