Temporary insanity and physical illness

Under Colorado law, someone charged with a violent crime can escape punishment if he or she can show involuntary intoxication. If successful, the defendant is set free. This is distinct from entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, under which the person is remanded to the custody of the state until he or she is found healthy enough for release.

These two issues overlapped in People v. Voth, a case that came before the Colorado Supreme Court in 2013. Back in June 2012, the defendant was seen by a neighbor firing a handgun into a woodpile near his garage. When the neighbor called out to the defendant, he fired at the neighbor and then approached the neighbor’s house and attempted to enter. The defendant was arrested and charged with attempted murder and assault, among other crimes. After his arrest, the defendant was taken to the hospital in a state of delirium. Hospital staff believed the defendant was suffering from viral encephalitis, but could not confirm this diagnosis.

At trial, the defendant initially plead insanity. The court ordered a mental evaluation, and the psychologist concluded that the defendant was insane at the time he committed the crime, but was no longer insane at the time of trial. The defense withdrew the insanity plea and instead argued that the defendant was involuntarily intoxicated by a virus. For the defendant, this would potentially mean the difference between a lifetime in a mental hospital and immediate freedom.

Virus as an intoxicant

One of the requirements for the defense of voluntary intoxication is the defendant must demonstrate that “a substance was introduced” into the body. The singular question is what a “substance” is in this context, and what the legislature intended the term to mean. The court looked at dictionary definitions (both legal and Merriam-Webster) which seemed to suggest that substance referred to something like drugs or alcohol. The court also noted two previous Colorado cases, where insulin and cough drops were deemed “substances” for the purposes of involuntary intoxication. The conclusion from the court’s analysis is that a “substance” requires some affirmative action to be introduced into the body (such as injection or drinking). A virus does not meet this definition, since it ends up in the body due to someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than someone physically putting it there.

Temporary insanity

The other issue before the court was whether Colorado law allows someone to assert insanity when they no longer meet the definition of insanity by the time of trial. Colorado law defines insanity as someone who is in such a state as a result of a mental health condition that he or she cannot accurately perceive reality and was thus incapable of distinguishing right from wrong.

There was some discussion from the court in prior cases that insanity may not be pled if the condition was temporary. However, state law requires that the mental condition influence the person’s state of mind “at the time of the commission of the act.” In other words, the law requires only that the person show he or she was not of sound mind at the time the crime was committed, and there is no requirement that the condition remain at the time of trial or at any later point.

These two defenses do not behave the same way, they have different requirements and different consequences. It is important to discuss any potential plea or strategy with an experienced criminal defense attorney to make sure you choose the best one for you and understand all possible results.

United States v. Brian Gall



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