Charged with DUI? Don’t argue dementia…

I just read an article (thanks to @ProFootballTalk) on Rickie Harris, the former Washington Redskins player who was arrested for DUI in December 2010. Harris’ attorneys tried to argue that dementia caused by repeated hits during his NFL career was the cause of his “erratic driving  – if not drinking” – the night he was arrested. The judge ultimately ruled that dementia was not a defense to being arrested for DUI and Harris will now spend six months in jail because it was his third offense in five years in Virginia.

I realize public opinion may be that it is ridiculous for Harris’ attorneys to argue dementia, especially in light of the recent controversy involving the NFL and head injuries (including a law suit by former NFL players against the NFL for head injuries, which Harris’ family says he may join). This is not only insulting to those whose lives may have been affected by a drunk driver but also to former NFL players who suffer from serious medical problems.

However, to explain to those who may not know and to refine my own understanding of the law, I’d like to offer a general overview of arguments that may be used to reduce a sentence for a DUI conviction or return a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

The general idea when arguing for a defendant who committed a crime under the influence of alcohol or drugs is that he lacked the mental capacity to be held accountable for his actions. The defendant must know or should know that alcohol or drugs will impair their ability to function and therefore if they consume it voluntarily, must be held accountable.

An exception to that rule is if the defendant is being charged with a specific intent crime. A specific intent crime is one in which  not only did the defendant intend to commit the actual physical act, but also intended to cause the specific harm that occurred from his action. In that situation, the defendant will argue that because he was drunk or high, he lacked the sufficient mental capacity to form the intent to cause the specific harm. Arguing in this manner is not a complete defense because the attorney is only proving the defendant did not intend for the specific harm to occur, not that the defendant did not commit the physical act.  It would likely lead to a reduced sentence.

When using an insanity defense, the idea is slightly different: to prove the defendant lacked the mental capacity to appreciate the risk of his actions. Usually to do this, the defense will bring in an expert to testify that the defendant was mentally ill at the time of the alleged crime. Different courts may use different definitions of insanity, but one of the most popular definitions of insanity is the M’Naughten Rule. The M’Naughten Rule states that insanity is the inability to distinguish right from wrong. Under the M’Naughten Rule, the general idea is the defendant cannot be held guilty of the crime if he did not know his actions were wrong. Contrary to popular public belief, it is rare for a defendant to use an insanity defense. Usually, even if a defendant is found “not guilty by reason of insanity”, he is not free to go home. Instead, he is likely to be admitted to a mental institution until he is found to be sane and able to rejoin society.

I don’t want this explanation to steer attention away from the fact that I believe that Rickie Harris knew what he was doing when he drank and got behind the wheel of a car. He’d done it twice before and that pattern of behavior suggests he would likely have done it again. I offer the explanation to help others understand that as ridiculous as and offensive as it may sound, his attorneys have to exercise their professional responsibility and use every possible argument to defend their client. Let’s hope that Harris learns his lesson before he hurts or kills someone.

What do you think about Harris’ claim of dementia as a defense to being charged with DUI?


About Rajiv Radia

Rajiv is a third year law student at American University - Washington College of Law in Washington DC and a long time sports fanatic.
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