Drunkenness no defence for arson: Supreme Court

Arson is not a crime that requires nefarious intent, and drunkenness is not a defence against it. So ruled the Supreme Court of Canada today in a judgment that will have implications for cases involving property damage.

Anthony MoustacalisIn R. v. Tatton, the respondent, Paul Tatton, accidentally torched his ex-girlfriend’s house when — in a state of self-induced drunkenness — he placed a pan with oil on a burner, set the stove to high, and then walked out to get a coffee.

Tatton was charged with arson under the Criminal Code. At trial, however, he was acquitted on grounds that the charges required “specific intent” — the intent to cause damage with a further result in mind (such as dropping a cigarette in a waste bin with the intent to burn down a house).

That decision, upheld on appeal, was struck down today in a ruling, written by Justice Michael Moldaver on behalf of a unanimous court, that describes the parameters of specific-intent offences.

The judgment, which sets aside Tatton’s acquittal and orders a new trial, provides a two-step process that must be taken into account when determining whether property damage is a result of a specific- or general-intent offence. The process involves: (1) the mental state of the offender, and (2) social policy considerations.

Moldaver allows that self-induced intoxication may, although not necessarily, provide a defence against specific-intent offences. Drunkenness, for instance, may limit the mental faculties required for such intent. In the case of arson, however, no sophisticated intent is required.

“No additional knowledge or purpose is needed,” the decision states. “No complex thought or reasoning processes are required. It is difficult to see how intoxication short of automatism would prevent an accused from foreseeing the risk of causing damage to someone else’s property by fire.”

The second step in the process involves a social policy analysis, and here Moldaver requires judges to consider whether the defence is “habitually associated with the crime in question.”

In Tatton’s case, the decision points to the obvious connection between alcoholism and property damage. Because of the well-known risks of self-induced intoxication, offenders cannot then use their drunkenness as an excuse.

“Without setting out a general rule, alcohol habitually plays a role in crimes involving violent or unruly conduct and in crimes involving damage to property. Although there are exceptions to this general proposition, the prevalence of alcohol in these crimes means that there are likely to be strong policy reasons militating against an intoxication-based defence.”

The Criminal Lawyers Association intervened in support of the respondent in this case.

“Our organization argued that arson should be a specific-intent offence, because of the fact that it usually requires some prior planning,” says CLA president Anthony Moustacalis.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument, but what Moustacalis finds really interesting is how the judgment touches on the lack of clarity around criminal intent and the need for Parliament to reform the Criminal Code.

“Think about it,” he says. “You had three excellent judges at the Court of Appeal. Two sided one way, one sided another. So if it were that obvious, the Court of Appeal would have sorted it out too.”

“It’s really a parliamentary issue, and the area of intent . . . is one that should be addressed in a consistent fashion, so that citizens know what the law is without the courts having to go through this tortuous process that even the court describes as difficult.”

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