Attorney Shawn Sukumar practices criminal defense in the District of Columbia. He represents clients who have been charged with a range of crimes, including DUI and attempted murder.
Over the past few years the involuntary intoxication defense has been invoked in courts across the U.S. with more frequency, most recently for a case of attempted murder in Maryland.
In 2014 a man shot his wife in the neck in their Carroll County home but then claimed he could not remember doing it, blaming the lapse in memory as an effect of Chantix, the prescription smoking-cessation medication that he had been taking. Under the involuntary intoxication defense, he was not found criminally liable for the attempted murder of his wife.
In another case from 2008 a soldier who was taking Chantix got up in the night and slashed the throat of a fellow soldier in his bed, killing him. In court he claimed that Chantix caused him to lose control and feel delusional. His life sentence without parole was reduced to 45 years because of the involuntary intoxication defense.
In order for an involuntary intoxication defense to hold up in court, the defendant must prove that they either unwittingly took a substance that intoxicated them or prove that they were not aware that the substance would cause intoxication. This defense does not work for drinking and driving nor for crimes committed while under the influence of illicit drugs that are known to cause intoxication.
One case in which the involuntary intoxication defense did not work occurred earlier this year in Fairfax, Virginia.
A man named Andrew Schmuhl forced his way into the home of a lawyer, holding him and his wife hostage for three hours while interrogating them before stabbing both victims and fleeing the scene. Schmul’s wife had just been fired from the man’s Arlington law firm. She was waiting in a car for her husband outside of the victim’s home.
In court Schmuhl stated that a cocktail of medications caused him to lose his ability to understand what he was doing during the assault, but the involuntary intoxication defense did not convince the jury.
In the case of the man in Maryland who shot his wife after taking Chantix, his lawyer argued in court that the medication caused him to have a psychotic episode, which is why he acted out in violence, shooting his wife once before the weapon misfired and then grabbing the raised gun of the police officer who arrived at the scene.
Prosecutors in the case ultimately dismissed the two counts of attempted murder in exchange for an assault plea. The man was subsequently found to be not criminally responsible for the assault charge and ordered him released from custody.
The man’s wife and her family did not want him to be released, but his sentence does require him to have a GPS monitor for three years, bars him from seeing his wife under a lifetime protective order and only permits contact with his children by mail. More importantly, he is prohibited from taking Chantix, having a gun and using alcohol or drugs.
Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that produces Chantix, has defended the medication stating that there are no known psychiatric side effects. Steven Danehy, a representative of Pfizer, confirmed that there is no scientific proof that Chantix can cause users to have psychotic events even after an international clinical trial conducted in accordance with an FDA mandate.
When compared with two other smoking-cessation medicines, users of Chantix did not demonstrate any negative neuropsychiatric behaviors, even in a trial that included people with a history of depression. Over 11 million Americans have received prescriptions for Chantix to quit smoking, and it is approved for medical use in over 100 countries.
In spite of these reassurances by Pfizer, the company settled 2,700 lawsuits in 2013 in which claimants sued over psychiatric problems caused by Chantix like suicidal thoughts and suicide. As a result, the FDA required Pfizer to put a black box warning label on Chantix to notify users of possible psychiatric side effects.
While Pfizer denies that there are any psychiatric effects associated with Chantix, two cases found defendants not criminally responsible for their actions while taking this smoking-cessation medication.
With more people in the U.S. taking prescription medications for pain and mental health disorders, it is no surprise that this defense has been surfacing more frequently in courtrooms around the country.