DUIs and Strict Liability: Why Your Good Intentions Do Not Matter

Caryn J. Adams
Managing Attorney
The Gasper Law Group

Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and Driving While Ability Impaired (DWAI) are what are called “strict liability” offenses. This means that the district attorney does not have to prove that you acted with a culpable (or bad) mental state. Most crimes require two components before a jury can return a verdict of guilty. These components are a voluntary act (i.e. actus reus) and a culpable mental state (i.e. mens rea) to go along with the act. “Mens rea” is often translated as “intent.” The intent to commit a crime is not, however, required in a DUI or DWAI case.

According to C.R.S. 18-1-502, “The minimum requirement for criminal liability is the performance by a person of conduct which includes a voluntary act.” The statute goes on to say, “If that conduct is all that is required for the commission of a particular offense… the offense is one of ‘strict liability.’” In DUI or DWAI cases, briefly put, that act or conduct would be getting behind the wheel of a car with too much alcohol in your system.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, I often hear clients say things like, “I didn’t intend to drink too much,” or “I didn’t realize I’d had that much. I guess I just lost track.” I also hear, “But I was being really careful. My friends will say that I seemed fine to drive at the bar.” None of these are defenses to the crime of DUI or DWAI. There are, of course, defenses that can be raised in such cases: defenses relating to not driving, to not being over the limit, those relating to emergency situations and having to choose between two “evils,” etc. Setting aside situations in which other defenses apply for a moment, the truth is that if your BAC was tested and was over .08, your good intentions do not matter much. Only if your act was NOT voluntary (e.g. your fraternity brothers forced alcohol down your throat and then carried you to the driver’s seat and handcuffed you to the steering wheel) do you have an answer to the concept of “strict liability.”