Latest Law Highlights from Across the Globe
Canada Supreme Court on voluntary intoxication...
The Cases of R v Brown and R v Sullivan
The Case of Brown

On the night of January 12, 2018, Matthew Winston Brown consumed alcohol and “magic mushrooms” at a party in Calgary, Alberta. The mushrooms contain psilocybin, an illegal drug that can cause hallucinations. Mr. Brown lost his grip on reality, left the party and broke into a nearby home, violently attacking a woman inside. The woman suffered permanent injuries as a result of the attack. When Mr. Brown broke into another house, the couple living there called the police. Mr. Brown said he had no memory of the incidents.

Mr. Brown was charged with aggravated assault, breaking and entering, and mischief to property. He had no previous criminal record and no history of mental illness. 

At trial, Mr. Brown pleaded not guilty to the charges on the basis of “automatism”. Automatism is when someone claims to have been so intoxicated or impaired that they had lost complete control of themselves. 

The Crown argued Mr. Brown could not rely on automatism because section 33.1 of the Criminal Code prevents a person from using automatism as a defence for crimes involving assault or interference with the bodily integrity of another person.

Mr. Brown responded that section 33.1 of the Criminal Code violates sections 7 and 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 7 guarantees everyone the right to life, liberty and security of the person, whereas section 11(d) guarantees everyone the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The judge agreed with Mr. Brown and acquitted him. The Crown appealed to Alberta’s Court of Appeal, which disagreed and convicted Mr. Brown. He then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

The Supreme Court has restored the acquittal.   

The Supreme Court heard this case together with R. v. Sullivan, and the judgments are being rendered at the same time. 

Section 33.1 of the Criminal Code violates sections 7 and 11(d) of the Charter and is therefore unconstitutional. 

Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Nicholas Kasirer said section 33.1 of the Criminal Code violates sections 7 and 11(d) of the Charter in a way that cannot be justified in a free and democratic society and is unconstitutional. He wrote that section 33.1 violates section 11(d) of the Charter because society could interpret someone’s intent to become intoxicated as an intention to commit a violent offence. Section 33.1 also violates section 7 because a person could be convicted without the prosecution having to prove that the action was voluntary or that the person intended to commit the offence.

Convicting someone for how they conducted themselves while in a state of automatism violates principles of fundamental justice. Our criminal justice system is based on the notion of personal responsibility. In Canada, two elements of fundamental justice are required for a person to be found guilty of a crime. They are: a guilty action; and (2) a guilty mind. Neither element is present when a person is in a state of automatism. 

Parliament could enact legislation to address violence caused by extreme intoxication. 

The Court explained that Parliament could enact new legislation to hold an extremely intoxicated person accountable for a violent crime. The Court emphasized that, “protecting the victims of violent crime – particularly in light of the equality and dignity interests of women and children who are vulnerable to intoxicated sexual and domestic acts – is a pressing and substantial social purpose”. 

The Case of R v Sullivan

These cases are about two Ontario men, David Sullivan and Thomas Chan, who committed violent acts while extremely intoxicated from drugs they had voluntary taken. The events are unrelated, but both men argued that the drugs left them in states of “automatism”. Automatism is when someone claims to have been so intoxicated or impaired that they lost complete control of themselves.

Mr. Sullivan took an overdose of a prescription drug, fell into an impaired state and attacked his mother with a knife, gravely injuring her. He was charged with several offences, including aggravated assault and assault with a weapon. 

For his part, Mr. Chan took “magic mushrooms”, which contain a drug called psilocybin. He fell into an impaired state, attacked his father with a knife and killed him, and seriously injured his father’s partner. Mr. Chan was tried for manslaughter and aggravated assault. In addition to the defence of automatism, he said an underlying brain injury was also to blame for his actions. 

Section 33.1 of the Criminal Code prevents a person from using automatism as a defence for crimes involving assault or interference with the bodily integrity of another person. At their respective trials, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Chan argued that section 33.1 violates sections 7 and 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter). Section 7 guarantees everyone the right to life, liberty and security of the person, whereas section 11(d) guarantees everyone the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. 

In Mr. Sullivan’s case, the trial judge accepted that he was acting involuntarily, but said section 33.1 prevented the defence of automatism and convicted him. In Mr. Chan’s case, a different trial judge said he did not have to follow previous decisions of the same court declaring section 33.1 unconstitutional. He also said Mr. Chan’s brain injury was not the cause of his actions. As a result, he convicted Mr. Chan.

Both men appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, which heard the appeals together. The Court of Appeal acquitted Mr. Sullivan and ordered a new trial for Mr. Chan since no actual finding of fact had been made about automatism in his case. The Crown then appealed both rulings to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

The Supreme Court has dismissed the appeals. 

In R. v. Brown, the Supreme Court decided section 33.1 of the Criminal Code was unconstitutional. 

Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Nicholas Kasirer said the Supreme Court’s ruling in R. v. Brown, which was heard together with these appeals and whose judgment is being rendered at the same time, is applicable to this case. In R. v. Brown, the Court says section 33.1 of the Criminal Code violates sections 7 and 11(d) of the Charter in a way that cannot be justified in a free and democratic society and is unconstitutional. In this case, Mr. Sullivan can be acquitted because he had proven that he was intoxicated to the point of automatism and the trial judge had found he was acting involuntarily. For his part, Mr. Chan can argue the automatism defence at his new trial, Justice Kasirer explained. 

For the full judgement of the Court in Brown click here.

For the full judgement of the Court in Sullivan click here