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State v. Cameron

Decided: September 25, 1986.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Clifford, J.


[104 NJ Page 44] This appeal presents a narrow, but important, issue concerning the role that a defendant's voluntary intoxication plays in a criminal prosecution. The specific question is whether the evidence was sufficient to require the trial court to charge the jury on defendant's intoxication, as defendant requested. The

Appellate Division reversed defendant's convictions, holding that it was error not to have given an intoxication charge. We granted the State's petition for certification, 99 N.J. 200 (1984), and defendant's cross-petition, 101 N.J. 243 (1985), and now reverse.


Defendant, Michele Cameron, age 22 at the time of trial, was indicted for second degree aggravated assault, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(1); possession of a weapon, a broken bottle, with a purpose to use it unlawfully, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(d); and fourth degree resisting arrest, a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2. A jury convicted defendant of all charges. After merging the possession count into the assault charge, the trial court imposed sentences aggregating seven years in the custody of the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, with a three year period of parole ineligibility and certain monetary penalties.

The charges arose out of an incident of June 6, 1981, on a vacant lot in Trenton. The unreported opinion of the Appellate Division depicts the following tableau of significant events:

The victim, Joseph McKinney, was playing cards with four other men. Defendant approached and disrupted the game with her conduct. The participants moved their card table to a new location within the lot. Defendant followed them, however, and overturned the table. The table was righted and the game resumed. Shortly thereafter, defendant attacked McKinney with a broken bottle. As a result of that attack he sustained an injury to his hand, which necessitated 36 stitches and caused permanent injury.

Defendant reacted with violence to the arrival of the police. She threw a bottle at their vehicle, shouted obscenities, and tried to fight them off. She had to be restrained and handcuffed in the police wagon.

The heart of the Appellate Division's reversal of defendant's conviction is found in its determination that voluntary intoxication is a defense when it negates an essential element of the offense -- here, purposeful conduct. We agree with that proposition. Likewise are we in accord with the determinations of the court below that all three of the charges of which this

defendant was convicted -- aggravated assault, the possession offense, and resisting arrest -- have purposeful conduct as an element of the offense; and that a person acts purposely "with respect to the nature of his conduct or a result thereof if it is his conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result" (quoting N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2(b)(1)). We part company with the Appellate Division, however, in its conclusion that the circumstances disclosed by the evidence in this case required that the issue of defendant's intoxication be submitted to the jury.

The court below noted that every witness who testified gave some appraisal of defendant's condition. On the basis of that evidence the Appellate Division concluded that

defendant's conduct was both bizarre and violent. She had been drinking and could not be reasoned with. The victim thought she was intoxicated and two police officers thought she was under the influence of something. Not one witness who testified thought that her conduct was normal. Therefore, it was for the jury to determine if she was intoxicated, and if so, whether the element of purposefulness was negated thereby.

The quoted passage reflects a misapprehension of the level of proof required to demonstrate intoxication for purposes of demonstrating an inability to engage in purposeful conduct.


Under the common law intoxication was not a defense to a criminal charge. II Final Report of the New Jersey Criminal Law Revision Commission 67 (1971) (Code Commentary); Model Penal Code and Commentaries § 2.08 comment at 350-51 (1985) (hereinafter MPC Commentaries); C. Torcia, Wharton's Criminal Law § 108, at 49 (1979); Annotation, Effect of Voluntary Drug Intoxication Upon Criminal Responsibility, 73 A.L.R. 3d 98, 121 (1976) (survey of cases); Annotation, Modern Status of the Rules as to Voluntary Intoxication as Defense to Criminal Charge, 8 A.L.R. 3d 1235, 1240 (1966) (same). Rather than being denominated a defense, intoxication was viewed as a "condition of fact," Warner v. State, 56 N.J.L. 686, 689 (E. & A. 1894), or, in a homicide case, as "a mere circumstance

to be considered in determining whether premeditation was present or absent." Wilson v. State, 60 N.J.L. 171, 184 (E. & A. 1897).

Notwithstanding the general proposition that voluntary intoxication is no defense, the early cases nevertheless held that in some circumstances intoxication could be resorted to for defensive purposes -- specifically, to show the absence of a specific intent.

The exceptional immunity extended to the drunkard is limited to those instances where the crime involves a specific, actual intent. When the degree of intoxication is such as to render the person incapable of entertaining such intent, it is an effective defence. If it falls short of this it is worthless. [ Warner v. State, supra, 56 N.J.L. at 690.]

The principle that developed from the foregoing approach -- that intoxication formed the basis for a defense to a "specific intent" crime but not to one involving only "general" intent -- persisted for about three-quarters of a century, or until this Court's decision in State v. Maik, 60 N.J. 203 (1972). See, e.g., State v. Mack, 86 N.J.L. 233, 235 (E. & A. 1914) ("if defendant was so intoxicated or in such a condition of mind because he was getting over a debauch that his faculties were prostrated and rendered him incapable of forming a specific intent to kill with * * * willful, deliberate and premeditated character, then although it is no defence or justification, his offence would be murder in the second degree"); State v. Marriner, 93 N.J.L. 273 (Sup.Ct.1919), aff'd o.b., 95 N.J.L. 265 (E. & A. 1920) (proof that defendant had been intoxicated for five to six weeks preceding assault on his wife and expert testimony that that condition would cause "unsoundness of mind" does not excuse consequences of crime, but justifies jury charge directed to question of whether defendant acted with requisite mental state); State v. Treficanto, 106 N.J.L. 344, 352-53 (E. & A. 1929) (evidence of defendant's deliberate search for murder weapon sufficient to support jury's conclusion that defendant's faculties were not "so far prostrated by intoxication as to render him incapable of forming an intent to kill"); State v. Roscus, 16 N.J. 415, 426 (1954) (no error in charge to jury that

"intoxication is an affirmative defense," which defendant must establish by fair preponderance of evidence; intoxication so great as to prostrate defendant's faculties and render him incapable of forming specific intent to kill would make defendant not guilty of first degree murder).

Eventually the problems inherent in the application of the specific-general intent dichotomy surfaced. In State v. Maik, supra, 60 N.J. 203 this Court dwelt on the elusiveness of the distinction between "specific" and "general" intent crimes, particularly as that distinction determined what role voluntary intoxication played in a criminal prosecution. Id., at 214-15. Chief Justice Weintraub's opinion for the Court restated the original proposition that "a defendant will not be relieved of criminal responsibility because he was under the influence of intoxicants or drugs voluntarily taken," id. at 214, and then set forth four exceptions to that rule: (1) the ingestion of drugs for medication, producing unexpected or bizarre results; (2) impairment of mental faculties negating only premeditation or deliberation, to preclude elevation to first degree murder; (3) reduction of felony homicide to second degree murder when the felonious intent is negated; and (4) when insanity results. Id. at 214-16.

Maik, a murder prosecution, was not given a uniform reading. As later pointed out in State v. Stasio, 78 N.J. 467 (1979), the Appellate Division in State v. Del Vecchio, 142 N.J. Super. 359 certif. den., 71 N.J. 501 (1976), limited Maik 's sweep to the proposition that voluntary intoxication is relevant only to the determination of whether a murder may be raised to first degree, whereas Judge Allcorn, dissenting in State v. Atkins, 151 N.J. Super. 555, 573 (App.Div.1977), rev'd, 78 N.J. 454 (1979), read Maik to rule out voluntary intoxication as a defense to any criminal prosecution, irrespective of whether a specific or general intent was an ...

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