People v. Atkins

25 Cal. 4th 76, 104 Cal. Rptr. 2d 738, 18 P.3d 660 (2001)



The terms "willful" or "willfully," when applied in a penal statute, require only that the illegal act or omission occur "intentionally," without regard to motive or ignorance of the act's prohibited character. Willfully implies no evil intent; it implies that the person knows what he is doing, intends to do what he is doing and is a free agent. The use of the word "willfully" in a penal statute usually defines a general criminal intent, absent other statutory language that requires an intent to do a further act or achieve a future consequence.


A man was charged with arson of forest land. He was heard saying he hated a certain individual and was going to burn down his house. The night of the fire, several friends witnessed him to be intoxicated. At trial, defendant argued that evidence of his voluntary intoxication was admissible under Cal. Penal COde $ 22 to show that he lacked the requisite mental state for arson. The State argued that arson was a general intent crime with a mental state that could not be negated by such evidence. He was convicted in the trial court. On appeal, the court overturned the conviction. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of California.


Is voluntary intoxication admissible to disprove the mental state required for the crime of arson?




In overturning the appellate court's judgment, the Supreme Court concluded that evidence of defendant's voluntary intoxication was inadmissible to disprove the mental state required for the crime of arson. The instant court agreed with the State that arson required only a general criminal intent and that the specific intent to set fire to or burn or cause to be burned the relevant structure or forest land was not an element of arson. If the legislature had meant for arson to have a specific intent requirement, it would have done so expressly. The withholding of voluntary intoxication evidence to negate the mental state of arson did not violate defendant's due process rights by denying him the opportunity to prove he did not possess the required mental state.

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