Intoxication not a mental condition

A recent appellate decision out of Kansas City ruled to reject a defendant’s argument that intoxication qualified as a mental condition and therefore exclude testimony regarding her intoxicated state. The court ruled intoxication is a physical condition not mental.

The defendant based her appeal upon the argument that the Cole County judge allowed three witnesses to testify about defendant’s intoxication despite a change in state law approved earlier in the year by the legislature.

The defendant was arrested on December 15, 2015 by Jefferson City police.

The police officer observed the defendant stopped at a green light in the fast lane of traffic with her high beams on.  She did not dim them for approaching vehicles when she started to drive.  The officer followed the defendant’s car and saw her turn her headlights off while driving. The car also wove back and forth in its lane. The officer turned on his emergency lights to stop the defendant but she did not stop. He then turned the siren on. The defendant continued to drive, nearly hit another car. Eventually she stopped in her lane, although there were places to pull off the road.

When she got out of the car, she failed to put the car in park and it started rolling.  When the officer told her to put the car in park she appeared confused.  He then conducted field sobriety tests and arrested her for DWI. The officer searched her vehicle and person and found a pill later determined to be a depressant called lorazepam.  He then administered a breath test which showed her to have a blood-alcohol content of 0.075 percent, which was just below the legal level of intoxication in Missouri.

However, a separate blood test showed the defendant also had lorazepam in her system. A Highway Patrol witness testified at the trial that at the levels observed, in combination with alcohol, the drug would enhance symptoms of ‘drowsiness, dizziness, difficulties with coordination, confusion and divided-attention tasks.”

Now the arrest was in December 2015, but the trial occurred in November 2017, which was after lawmakers had changed the state’s law on who is an “expert” witness and what that person can and cannot testify to during a trial.

This 2017 law said that in a criminal case, an “expert witness shall not state an opinion about whether the defendant did or did not have a mental state or condition that constitutes an element of the crime charged or of a defense.” These matters of mental state are for the fact finder (judge or jury) to determine.

The defendant’s attorney also had objected to the judge’s decision to allow testimony from two Jefferson City police officers as well as the patrol’s criminalist, all of whom testified that the defendant was intoxicated that night.

The appellate decision stated the defendant “acknowledges that ‘mental state’ has been defined under Missouri law as the (reason) element of a crime, such as purpose, knowledge, recklessness and negligence.  Thus, her argument hinges on us finding that the ‘intoxicated condition’ element of a DWI offense constitutes a ‘mental condition.” The defendant’s attorney argued that nothing in (the new law) defined what ‘mental condition’ means, and he argued that intoxication is obviously a mental condition, because it ‘affects the mind’s capabilities.

The appellate judge wrote: “It is unclear to us what criminal offenses the Legislature had in mind when it included ‘mental condition’ in the proscription on expert testimony where it is an element of the crime charged we do not believe that intoxication is a mental condition about which an expert may not testify in a DWI case.”

The appellate judge further wrote that  our courts have ‘characterized intoxication as a physical condition usually evidenced by unsteadiness on the feet, slurring of speech, lack of body coordination and an impairment of motor reflexes. “Hence, we find that intoxication is not a mental condition, and the statute’s limitation does not apply,” the appellate judge stated. The decision from the three panel of judges that to get her conviction overturned, the defendant would have prove that without the evidence she had challenged in her appeal, the jury would have made a different decision at trial.  The appellate court determined that the jury would have come to the same conclusion had the witnesses not testified at trial.

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