By CATHERINE BYRNE
Capital News Service
LANSING — A measure to eliminate voluntary intoxication as a legal defense for criminals passed in the House of Representatives 100-1 last week.
Its one opponent? A lawyer.
Rep. Stephen Adamini, D-Marquette, voted against the bill sponsored by Rep. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, that states intoxication is not an acceptable reason to commit a crime.
“Society needs to send a message that drunkenness is not an excuse,” Johnson said. “You need to take responsibility if you purposely alter your mind.”
Adamini said he wasn’t “condoning drunken behavior,” but also said America’s courts are the way they are for a reason.
“This has been a defense recognized by our legal system for over 100 years,” Adamini said. “The defense is rarely used, and even when it is used, it’s extremely rare to have it be successful.
“If the system isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Despite Adamini’s objection to the bill, many lawmakers and legal insiders are citing reasons why it is necessary.
Rep. Steve Vear, R-Hillsdale, called the current law “antiquated.” “It came about in the early 1800s when people were still riding horses,” Vear said.
Rep. Charles LaSata, R-St. Joseph, agreed that the defense is not used often, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
“I don’t think it’s an urgent issue, but criminals need to be held accountable for their actions,” Vear said.
Johnson recognized Adamini’s reasoning, but said she wasn’t surprised by the overwhelming House support.
“They used good judgment,” she said. “I had one lawyer vote ‘no’ because he wanted to give the courts more latitude.”
Adamini contended this bill took court decisions “away from the people.”
“We have a right to trial by jury,” Adamini said. “If the Legislature steps in to make courts’ decisions for them, we’re just fooling people by telling them it’s a fair system.
“A jury and judge are better able to make a decision based on the individual facts of a case. We come in and make this cookie-cutter legislation, not recognizing the possibility for individual circumstances.”
Sen. Philip Hoffman, R-Horton, a former deputy with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, said Adamini’s arguments are “baseless.”
“Society should not have to take responsibility for an individual’s lack of responsibility,” Hoffman said. “Intoxication is not a defense. If anything, I think it shows a weakness and a lack of individual character.”
Jeffrey Sauter of Charlotte, president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, said these issues are “sometimes in the Legislature’s arena and sometimes in the courts’ arena.”
“In this situation, the Supreme Court invited the Legislature to decide what the public policy should be,” Sauter said. “This is entirely appropriate.”
Anica Letica, assistant prosecutor in the appellant division of the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, brought the issue of eliminating drunkenness as a defense to the Michigan Legislature. According to Letica, 10 other states have modified laws to remove voluntary intoxication as a legal defense.
“It’s not the Supreme Court’s job to decide what the defenses are,” Letica said. “That is the Legislature’s job.
“It’s good public policy to not excuse criminal behavior.”
According to Letica, a 1982 Michigan Supreme Court decision brought this issue into the public eye. The Supreme Court consolidated two cases where a convicted murderer and convicted rapist both appealed their cases because of voluntary intoxication. Both appeals failed because of the nature of the crimes, but it was decided to keep the defense available for other cases.
Two other cases that surfaced in the past year, including one that will take place in Alpena in May, also directly dealt with drunkenness as a defense.
Marshall Tauber of Bloomfield Hills, first vice president of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, calls the measure an “erosion of constitutional defense.”
Kathy Swedlow, visiting professor to Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, contends the defense should remain.
“It doesn’t just let you go home, contrary to popular belief,” Swedlow said. “It mitigates the severity of the sentence, but it’s still a conviction.”
Swedlow said the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in society should influence legislators’ decisions.
“Unfortunately, people do abuse those substances, and that should be taken into consideration,” she said. “In this day and age, there are no laws that allow people to just evade responsibility.”
Rep. Mickey Mortimer, R-Horton, contends that drinking is a “pre-meditated” act, and should be treated as such.
“You choose to be drunk,” Mortimer said. “By that extension, it’s no different than the choice to pick up a weapon and attack someone.”
Rep. Ron Jelinek, R-Three Oaks, agrees that choosing to drink is the fault of the criminal.
“When you’ve lifted the glass to your mouth, you can’t point your finger at someone else,” Jelinek said.
Vear believes the current law is contradictory to the U.S. legal system.
“We prosecute people for drunk driving and then say it’s a defense for a crime?” Vear questions. “It’s contrary to our whole system.”
Letica agrees that things don’t add up.
“In our culture, drinking and driving are not acceptable,” Letica said. “We’re not excusing that choice, so why should we excuse other choices made under the influence?”
Adamini, however, believes his colleagues were under the influence of something much stronger than alcohol when voting: upcoming elections.
“It’s an election year,” Adamini said. “These people are thinking, ‘Boy, if I vote against this, they’re going to say I’m in favor of drunks.'”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By CATHERINE BYRNE