In R v Tattoon, 2014 ONCA 273, a judgment released by the Ontario Court of Appeal this week, the Court allowed the defence of accident caused by intoxication for a charge of arson. Mr. Tattoon, while intoxicated, set out to cook bacon on the stove. He poured oil into a pan and accidentally turned the stove element to a high setting, as opposed to the low setting as he had intended. While the pan heated up, he made a quick trip to Tim Hortons to get a coffee, presumably to sober himself up. Upon returning home, he found the house on fire. As a result of his drunken desire for bacon and coffee, the house accidentally burnt down. The issue that faced the trial judge and the Court of Appeal is whether his drunkenness while doing a dangerous act like using a stove could be a defence.
The case is important because it clarified that arson is what is known as a “specific intent offence”, as opposed to a general intent offence. This was an important decision because there is a much better chance of being able to successfully raise a drunkenness defence to a specific intent offence. However, not all of the court of appeal judges agreed with the result which means the case will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada who will have the final say on this issue.
The defence of intoxication has been argued in the jurisprudence for decades, but the current state of the law is that evidence of intoxication can provide a defence for a specific intent offence, but not for a general intent offence – unless one has intoxication so extreme that it is akin to automatism which can provide a defence to a general intent offence. In short, intoxication short of being akin to automatism is only a defence to specific intent offences. This is because specific intent offences requires the trier of fact to ask what was the subjective state of mind of the accused at the time of the offence, and that intoxication is a relevant factor in this consideration.
Link to the Ontario Court of Appeal Judgment: http://www.ontariocourts.ca/decisions/2014/2014ONCA0273.htm