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Law School Case Brief

People v. Whitfield - 7 Cal. 4th 437, 27 Cal. Rptr. 2d 858, 868 P.2d 272 (1994)


No act committed by a person while in a state of voluntary intoxication is less criminal by reason of his having been in such condition. But whenever the actual existence of any particular purpose, motive, or intent is a necessary element to constitute any particular species or degree of crime, the jury may take into consideration the fact that the accused was intoxicated at the time, in determining the purpose, motive, or intent with which he committed the act.


Defendant was convicted for second degree murder in connection with a fatal traffic accident within seven years of having suffered three convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol. At his murder trial, defendant argued that he did not harbor implied malice because he was so intoxicated that he was unconscious when the accident occurred. The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. The intermediate California appellate court affirmed, rejecting defendant's claim that the jury should have been charged on involuntary manslaughter. The appellate court ruled that the trial court erred in defendant's favor by instructing the jury that it could consider his degree of intoxication in deciding whether he harbored implied malice. Defendant sought further review in the Supreme Court of California.


Does the voluntary intoxication of the defendant support his conviction for second degree murder?




The Supreme Court of California held that the trial court did not err in refusing defendant's requested jury instruction on killing while unconscious as a result of voluntary intoxication. Although the instruction contained a correct statement of law in the abstract, in the present case it erroneously implied that, if defendant was unconscious when the collision occurred, he could not be convicted of murder. The circumstance that a defendant, when a fatal traffic collision occurs, is unconscious from voluntary intoxication, does not preclude a finding that the defendant harbored malice, because malice may have been formed prior to that time.

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