Her Majesty the Queen v. Paul Francis Tatton 2015 SCC 33 (Criminal law - Arson – Defences - Intoxication)

Appeal from a judgment of the Ontario Court of Appeal (2014 ONCA 273), upholding the acquittal on a charge of arson entered by Tausendfreund J.

T caused a fire that destroyed the contents of his ex‑girlfriend’s home. In a highly intoxicated state, he placed a pan with oil on a stove, set the burner to high, and left the house to get a coffee. When he returned approximately 20 minutes later, the house was on fire. T was charged with arson contrary to s. 434  of the Criminal Code . At trial, T claimed that the fire was an accident. The trial judge determined that s. 434  was a specific intent offence, meaning that T could rely on self‑induced intoxication as a defence. T was acquitted. A majority of the Court of Appeal upheld the acquittal.

Held (7:0): The appeal should be allowed, the acquittal set aside and a new trial ordered.

The classification of an offence as one involving general or specific intent has important consequences for the accused because the law does not allow offenders to rely on self‑induced intoxication falling short of automatism as an excuse for general intent offences. The analysis of whether an offence is one of general intent or specific intent must start with a determination of the mental element of the offence. This is an exercise in statutory interpretation and should not be turned into a factual assessment. The next question is whether the crime is one of general or specific intent. Where the jurisprudence has already determined the appropriate classification of the offence in a satisfactory manner, the task is straightforward. Otherwise, there are two main considerations — the importance of the mental element and the social policy underlying the offence.

The importance of the mental element refers to the complexity of the thought and reasoning processes that are required for any given offence. For general intent offences, the mental element simply relates to the performance of the illegal act. Such crimes do not require an intent to bring about certain consequences that are external to the actus reus. Nor do they require actual knowledge of certain circumstances or consequences, to the extent that such knowledge is the product of complex thought and reasoning processes. General intent crimes involve such minimal mental acuity that it is difficult to see how intoxication short of automatism could deprive the accused of the low level of intent required. In contrast, specific intent offences involve a heightened mental element. That element may take the form of an ulterior purpose or it may entail actual knowledge of certain circumstances or consequences, where the knowledge is the product of more complex thought and reasoning processes. Alternatively, it may involve intent to bring about certain consequences, if the formation of that intent involves more complex thought and reasoning processes. Because of the more complicated thought and reasoning processes required for specific intent crimes, one can more readily understand how intoxication short of automatism may negate the required mental element.

When this analysis fails to yield a clear answer, one should turn to policy considerations. In the main, the policy assessment will focus on whether alcohol consumption is habitually associated with the crime in question. If it is, then allowing an accused to rely on intoxication as a defence would seem counterintuitive. But, where self‑induced intoxication rarely, if ever, plays a role in the commission of a particular crime, preventing an accused from relying on it makes less sense from a policy perspective. 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. Other residual policy considerations may also come into play. The presence of a lesser included general intent offence in the main offence may be relevant. The presence of judicial sentencing discretion may also be a factor to consider.

The offence of arson in s. 434  of the Criminal Code  is a general intent offence for which intoxication falling short of automatism is not available as a defence. The actus reus is the damaging of property by fire. The mental element is the intentional or reckless performance of the illegal act. No additional knowledge or purpose is needed. 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. There is no need to resort to policy considerations to determine the appropriate classification of the offence. Had it been necessary to do so, the same conclusion would have been reached. Damage to property is often associated with alcohol consumption and it would erode the policy underlying the offence of causing damage to property by fire if an accused could rely on self‑induced intoxication as a defence.

The criminal act in s. 434  of the Criminal Code  is the causing of damage to property. The fire is simply the mechanism by which the damage must be caused. In assessing the issue of intent, the trier of fact must consider all of the surrounding circumstances. The manner in which the fire started is likely to be an important consideration. Specifically, was the fire set accidentally, negligently, recklessly, or intentionally? However, the determinative question is not how the fire was started. Rather, the end game involves looking at all of the surrounding circumstances to determine whether it can be inferred that the accused intended to damage someone else’s property or was reckless whether damage ensued or not.

In this case, it is apparent that T’s intoxication played a material role in the acquittal. In his reasons, the trial judge concentrated on the cause of the fire and he stated that to resolve this issue, he must determine whether T’s intoxication could be considered. His decision to acquit was influenced by his erroneous belief that he could take into account T’s state of intoxication. A new trial is required because the trial judge’s critical findings of fact were tainted by his belief that self‑induced intoxication was relevant to the issue of intent.

Reasons for decision by Moldaver J. Concurring reasons by McLachlin C.J. and Abella, Rothstein, Cromwell, Wagner and Gascon JJ.

Neutral Citation: 2015 SCC 33. Docket No. 35866.