Montana v. Egelhoff

518 U.S. 37, 116 S. Ct. 2013 (1996)



Preventing and dealing with crime is much more the business of the states than it is of the federal government, and the court should not lightly construe the constitution so as to intrude upon the administration of justice by the individual states. Among other things, it is normally within the power of the state to regulate procedures under which its laws are carried out, and its decision in this regard is not subject to proscription under the Due Process Clause, U.S. Const. amend. XIV, unless it offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.


Defendant was convicted of deliberate homicide after police found him drunk in a vehicle next to his gun, with the two victims, each dead of gunshot wounds. Pursuant to Mont. Code Ann. § 45-2-203, the jury was instructed that it could not consider voluntary intoxication in determining the existence of the requisite mental state. The court reversed, holding that defendant did not uphold his burden of showing that the rule allowing consideration of intoxication on the question of intent was a fundamental principle under U.S. Const. amend. XIV, because it was too new, had not received sufficiently uniform and permanent allegiance, and displaced a lengthy and justified common law tradition.


Was the Due Process Clause violated by Montana Code Annotated § 45-2-203, which provides, in relevant part, that voluntary intoxication "may not be taken into consideration in determining the existence of a mental state which is an element of [a criminal] offense”?




The State Supreme Court's proposition that the Due Process Clause guarantees the right to introduce all relevant evidence is indefensible. The Clause does place limits upon restriction of the right to introduce evidence, but only where the restriction "offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people  as to be ranked as fundamental." Respondent has failed to meet the heavy burden of establishing that a defendant's right to have a jury consider voluntary intoxication evidence in determining whether he possesses the requisite mental state is a "fundamental principle of justice." The primary guide in making such a determination, historical practice, gives respondent little support. It was firmly established at common law that a defendant's voluntary intoxication provided neither an "excuse" nor a "justification" for his crimes; the common law's stern rejection of inebriation as a defense must be understood as also precluding a defendant from arguing that, because of his intoxication, he could not have possessed the mens rea necessary to commit the crime. The justifications for this common-law rule persist to this day, and have only been strengthened by modern research. Although a rule allowing a jury to consider evidence of a defendant's voluntary intoxication where relevant to mens rea has gained considerable acceptance since the 19th century, it is of too recent vintage, and has not received sufficiently uniform and permanent allegiance to qualify as fundamental, especially since it displaces a lengthy common-law tradition which remains supported by valid justifications. 

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