Lesser charge of assault was appropriate where man was intoxicated

When you are charged with a crime such as assault, the difference between first-degree assault, a felony, and third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, can have a significant effect on the penalties involved.

Each defined element of a crime is crucial to determining what level of offense can be established, and if some element of the crime cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, a lesser sentence may result. The case of People v. Lessey from the New York County Supreme Court provides an example.

Did the assault show "depraved indifference?"

The defendant was charged, under New York law, with the crime of assault in the first degree, arising from an incident in which he pushed a man from a subway platform. The crime was charged as a serious felony on the basis that the defendant committed the assault under facts indicating "a depraved indifference to human life", and that he recklessly engaged in conduct which created a severe risk of death.

The defendant alleged that he should not be convicted of first-degree assault because he was in an extremely intoxicated state at the time of the assault. He also argued that he had been involuntarily intoxicated by a drug of some kind slipped into his drink at a nightclub.

After a trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of the lesser misdemeanor charge of third-degree assault. The Supreme Court, New York County, reviewed whether it had properly instructed the jury that the defendant's voluntary intoxication could be considered to negate the mental state of depraved indifference to human life.

A particular mental state needed

The court noted that the question was whether intoxication could be used to negate the mental state of depraved indifference, such that the defendant would not be culpable for the first-degree charge.

The court found that the language of the statute related to intoxication was not ambiguous, and there was nothing irrational about the conclusion that a defendant who is intoxicated may be unable to form the mental state of depraved indifference at the moment of committing a crime requiring intent. The legislature had addressed the most common case of dangerous voluntary intoxication-drunk driving-elsewhere in the law, but that did not address situations similar to the current case where it may have been less likely that voluntary drunkenness could result in a violent crime.

New York law clearly states that, although intoxication is not a defense to a criminal charge, it can, indeed, be offered to negate an element of a crime charged, and depraved indifference to human life is an essential element of the crime of assault in the first degree. Thus, the court properly told the jury it could consider the defendant's voluntary intoxication in deciding whether he committed the felony of assault in the first degree, or whether he might be guilty of a lesser offense, like the misdemeanor of assault in the third degree.

Making a difference in your case

Whether you are charged with a felony or misdemeanor, you need a lawyer to represent you who has the experience and track record to make a difference in your case. Seek an attorney whose thorough preparation can result in reduced sentencing or even outright acquittals, depending on the circumstances of your case.