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Can an individual be too drunk to be held responsible?

When individuals become significantly intoxicated or high, their ordinary brain functions become impaired. This is primarily why individuals are not legally allowed to drive while impaired and why many drugs have been outlawed. Impaired judgment and compromised brain functions can lead to harmful decision-making that would never ordinarily be embraced by the individual.

Recently, some criminal defense attorneys have asked judges and juries to consider the possibility that individuals may reach a point during which they are too drunk or high to be held accountable for their actions.

Ordinarily, if individuals cause harm to others as a result of drunk driving accidents, they may be held accountable civilly and/or criminally for their behavior. But, criminal defense attorneys are asking, can one reasonably be held accountable for a decision made during a period of blackout? If one's brain is so impaired during a drinking binge or near-overdose on drugs, can that individual justly be held accountable for decisions made with a brain that has essentially been taken hostage by chemical use?

This logic may work in some criminal cases due to the mens rea requirement one must have in order to be convicted of most crimes. However, it will hopefully not be successful in the civil context, as victims and their families deserve rightful compensation from negligent parties regardless of their mindset at the time of recklessness or breach of a given duty of care. Addiction is a disease and addicts should be granted access to proper treatment. But they should not be given a free pass in civil court because they ultimately chose to take the drugs or drink the alcohol that led to their reckless behavior.

Source: New York Times, "Drivers' Defense: Too Drunk to Be Guilty," James C. McKinley Jr., Oct. 8, 2013

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