The Minotaur Defense: The Myth of the Pathological Intoxication Defense

By Feulner, Tim | American Criminal Law Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Minotaur Defense: The Myth of the Pathological Intoxication Defense


Feulner, Tim, American Criminal Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Few concepts in the criminal law sound as ominous or mysterious as "pathological intoxication." (1) Pathological intoxication describes an aggressive and often violent state triggered in some individuals by only a small amount of alcohol. (2) Pathological intoxication raises difficult questions for criminal law because it has aspects of mental illness and intoxication. Since the early twentieth century, courts have struggled to determine how to treat a "pathological intoxication defense." (3) The uniqueness of the concept and the difficulty in fitting it within the existing criminal law framework led the American Legal Institute to create a special pathological intoxication defense in the Model Penal Code. (4) Its inclusion in the Model Penal Code gave the defense credibility and changed the way that courts perceived evidence of pathological intoxication. (5) Today, the issue of pathological intoxication continues to be raised regularly as a defense to criminal offenses. (6)

Meanwhile, members of the psychiatric (7) community have heavily criticized the concept of pathological intoxication. (8) Critics argue that it was developed during a

time when psychiatry was less advanced (9) and that the term is used as a catch-all for a number of reactions to alcohol that are attributable to different diseases. (10) The growing criticism and the lack of concrete evidence of pathological intoxication led the editors of the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) to recommend that the diagnosis of pathological intoxication be dropped entirely from the DSM. (11)

These developments in the psychiatric world have had little impact in the criminal law's treatment of pathological intoxication. Pathological intoxication is still treated as a legitimate defense to a crime despite the fact that such evidence should be barred under longstanding principles of criminal law. (12) Additionally, courts allow expert psychiatric evidence of pathological intoxication despite the psychiatric community's skepticism and the unreliability of the diagnosis. (13)

This Note argues that the current legal conception of "pathological intoxication" should be abandoned because the notion of excusing defendants for being pathologically intoxicated is inconsistent with basic principles of criminal law. Additionally, expert testimony about pathological intoxication should be barred because it is unreliable even under the more liberal standards articulated in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (14) Part II will discuss the medical evidence of pathological intoxication and the debate over whether pathological intoxication describes a distinct syndrome (15) or a range of symptoms that are more properly classified as part(s) of other disorders. Part III will trace the historical development of the legal doctrine of pathological intoxication from the early twentieth century to the addition of a pathological intoxication defense in the Model Penal Code. Then, it will discuss the impact that the Model Penal Code has had on the way that courts view pathological intoxication and two recent attempts to use evidence of pathological intoxication as part of a defense.

Part IV will discuss the way psychiatry interacts with criminal law. Specifically, it will discuss how expert psychiatric testimony aids fact-finders in applying legal principles to factual circumstances and how psychiatry helps policymakers develop and refine legal principles. Part V will explain the various ways courts have treated evidence of pathological intoxication. Finally, Part VI will argue that pathological intoxication should not provide an excuse for a crime because exculpation of an individual on the basis of pathological intoxication is foreclosed by basic principles of criminal law, and treating an individual who is pathologically intoxicated differently than someone who is voluntarily intoxicated is not warranted. …

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