In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided June 13, 1996

Justice O’Connor, Dissenting

Topic: Due Process*Court vote: 5–4
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Citation: 518 U.S. 37 Docket: 95–566Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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The Montana Supreme Court unanimously held that Mont. Code Ann. § 45-2-203 (1995) violates due process. I agree. Our cases establish that due process sets an outer limit on the restrictions that may be placed on a defendant's ability to raise an effective defense to the State's accusations. Here, to impede the defendant's ability to throw doubt on the State's case, Montana has removed from the jury's consideration a category of evidence relevant to determination of mental state where that mental state is an essential element of the offense that must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Because this disallowance eliminates evidence with which the defense might negate an essential element, the State's burden to prove its case is made correspondingly easier. The justification for this disallowance is the State's desire to increase the likelihood of conviction of a certain class of defendants who might otherwise be able to prove that they did not satisfy a requisite element of the offense. In my view, the statute's effect on the criminal proceeding violates due process.


This Court's cases establish that limitations placed on the accused's ability to present a fair and complete defense can, in some circumstances, be severe enough to violate due process. "The right of an accused in a criminal trial to due process is, in essence, the right to a fair opportunity to defend against the State's accusations." Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U. S. 284, 294 (1973). Applying our precedent, the Montana Supreme Court held that keeping intoxication evidence away from the jury, where such evidence was relevant to establishment of the requisite mental state, violated the due process right to present a defense, 272 Mont. 114, 123, 900 P. 2d 260, 265 (1995), and that the instruction pursuant to § 45-2-203 was not harmless error, id., at 124, 900 P. 2d, at 266. In rejecting the Montana Supreme Court's conclusion, the plurality emphasizes that "any number of familiar and unquestionably constitutional evidentiary rules" permit exclusion of relevant evidence. Ante, at 42. It is true that a defendant does not enjoy an absolute right to present evidence relevant to his defense. See Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 683, 690-691 (1986). But none of the "familiar" evidentiary rules operates as Montana's does. The Montana statute places a blanket exclusion on a category of evidence that would allow the accused to negate the offense's mental-state element. In so doing, it frees the prosecution, in the face of such evidence, from having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant nevertheless possessed the required mental state. In my view, this combination of effects violates due process.

The proposition that due process requires a fair opportunity to present a defense in a criminal prosecution is not new. See id., at 690; California v. Trombetta, 467 U. S. 479, 485 (1984). In Chambers, the defendant had been prevented from cross-examining a witness and from presenting witnesses on his own behalf by operation of Mississippi's "voucher" and hearsay rules. The Court held that the application of these evidentiary rules deprived the defendant of a fair trial. "[W]here constitutional rights directly affecting the ascertainment of guilt are implicated, the hearsay rule may not be applied mechanistically to defeat the ends of justice." 410 U. S., at 302. The plurality's characterization of Chambers as "case-specific error correction," ante, at 52, cannot diminish its force as a prohibition on enforcement of state evidentiary rules that lead, without sufficient justification, to the establishment of guilt by suppression of evidence supporting the defendant's case.

In Crane, a trial court had held that the defendant could not introduce testimony bearing on the circumstances of his confession, on the grounds that this information bore only on the "voluntariness" of the confession, a matter already resolved. We held that by keeping such critical information from the jury this exclusion "deprived petitioner of his fundamental constitutional right to a fair opportunity to present a defense." 476 U. S., at 687. The Court emphasized that, while States have the power to exclude evidence through evidentiary rules that serve the interests of fairness and reliability, limitations on evidence may exceed the bounds of due process where such limitations undermine a defendant's ability to present exculpatory evidence without serving a valid state justification.

In Washington v. Texas, 388 U. S. 14 (1967), the trial court refused to permit a defense witness to testify on the basis of Texas statutes providing that persons charged or convicted as coparticipants in the same crime could not testify for one another, although they could testify for the State. The Court held that the Constitution prohibited a State from establishing rules to prevent whole categories of defense witnesses from testifying out of a belief that such witnesses were untrustworthy. Such action by the State detracted too severely and arbitrarily from the defendant's right to call witnesses in his favor.

These cases, taken together, illuminate a simple principle:

Due process demands that a criminal defendant be afforded a fair opportunity to defend against the State's accusations. Meaningful adversarial testing of the State's case requires that the defendant not be prevented from raising an effective defense, which must include the right to present relevant, probative evidence. To be sure, the right to present evidence is not limitless; for example, it does not permit the defendant to introduce any and all evidence he believes might work in his favor, Crane, supra, at 690, nor does it generally invalidate the operation of testimonial privileges, Washington v. Texas, supra, at 23, n. 21. Nevertheless, "an essential component of procedural fairness is an opportunity to be heard. That opportunity would be an empty one if the State were permitted to exclude competent, reliable evidence" that is essential to the accused's defense. Crane, supra, at 690 (citations omitted). Section 45-2-203 forestalls the defendant's ability to raise an effective defense by placing a blanket exclusion on the presentation of a type of evidence that directly negates an element of the crime, and by doing so, it lightens the prosecution's burden to prove that mental-state element beyond a reasonable doubt.

This latter effect is as important to the due process analysis as the former. A state legislature certainly has the authority to identify the elements of the offenses it wishes to punish, but once its laws are written, a defendant has the right to insist that the State prove beyond a reasonable doubt every element of an offense charged. See McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U. S. 79, 85 (1986); Patterson v. New York, 432 U. S. 197, 211, n. 12 (1977) ("The applicability of the reasonable-doubt standard, however, has always been dependent on how a State defines the offense that is charged"). "[T]he Due Process Clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged." In re Winship, 397 U. S. 358, 364 (1970); Patterson, supra, at 210. Because the Montana Legislature has specified that a person commits "deliberate homicide" only if he "purposely or knowingly causes the death of another human being," Mont. Code Ann. §45-5-102(1)(a) (1995), the prosecution must prove the existence of such mental state in order to convict. That is, unless the defendant is shown to have acted purposely or knowingly, he is not guilty of the offense of deliberate homicide. The Montana Supreme Court found that it was inconsistent with the legislature's requirement of the mental state of "purposely" or "knowingly" to prevent the jury from considering evidence of voluntary intoxication, where that category of evidence was relevant to establishment of that mental-state element. 272 Mont., at 122-123, 900 P. 2d, at 265-266.

Where the defendant may introduce evidence to negate a subjective mental-state element, the prosecution must work to overcome whatever doubts the defense has raised about the existence of the required mental state. On the other hand, if the defendant may not introduce evidence that might create doubt in the factfinder's mind as to whether that element was met, the prosecution will find its job so much the easier. A subjective mental state is generally proved only circumstantially. If a jury may not consider the defendant's evidence of his mental state, the jury may impute to the defendant the culpability of a mental state he did not possess.

In Martin v. Ohio, 480 U. S. 228 (1987), the Court considered an Ohio statute providing that a defendant bore the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, an affirmative defense such as self-defense. We held that placing that burden on the defendant did not violate due process. The Court noted in explanation that it would nevertheless have been error to instruct the jury that "self-defense evidence could not be considered in determining whether there was a reasonable doubt about the State's case" where Ohio's definition of the intent element made self-defense evidence relevant to the State's burden. Id., at 233-234. "Such an instruction would relieve the State of its burden and plainly run afoul of Winship's mandate." Id., at 234. In other words, the State's right to shift the burden of proving an affirmative defense did not include the power to prevent the defendant from attempting to prove self-defense in an effort to cast doubt on the State's case. Dictum or not, this observation explained our reasoning and is similarly applicable here, where the State has benefited from the defendant's in ability to make an argument which, if accepted, could throw reasonable doubt on the State's proof. The placement of the burden of proof for affirmative defenses should not be confused with the use of evidence to negate elements of the offense charged.

Crane noted: "In the absence of any valid state justification, exclusion of this kind of exculpatory evidence [circumstances of confession] deprives a defendant of the basic right to have the prosecutor's case encounter and survive the crucible of meaningful adversarial testing." 476 U. S., at 690691 (internal quotation marks omitted). The State here had substantial proof of the defendant's knowledge or purpose in committing these homicides, and might well have prevailed even had the jury been permitted to consider the defendant's intoxication. But as in Crane, the prosecution's case has been insulated from meaningful adversarial testing by the scale-tipping removal of the necessity to face a critical category of defense evidence.

The plurality ignores Crane's caution that the prosecution must be put to a full test. Rather, it invokes Crane to emphasize that "introduction of relevant evidence can be limited by the State for a 'valid' reason, as it has been by Montana." Ante, at 53. The State's brief to this Court enunciates a single reason: Due to the well-known risks related to voluntary intoxication, it seeks to prevent a defendant's use of his own voluntary intoxication as basis for exculpation. Brief for Petitioner 12, 17-19. That is, its interest is to ensure that even a defendant who lacked the required mental-state element-and is therefore not guilty-is nevertheless convicted of the offense. The plurality elaborates, ante, at 4950, on reasons why Montana might wish to preclude exculpation on the basis of voluntary intoxication, but these reasons-increased punishment and concomitant deterrence for those who commit unlawful acts while drunk, and implementation of society's moral perception that those who become drunk should bear the consequences-merely explain the State's purpose in trying to improve its likelihood of winning convictions. The final justification proffered by the plurality on Montana's behalf is that Montana's rule perhaps prevents juries, who might otherwise be misled, from being "too quick to accept the claim that the [drunk] defendant was biologically incapable of forming the requisite mens rea," ante, at 50-51. But this proffered justification is inconsistent with § 45-2-203's exception for persons who are involuntarily intoxicated. That exception makes plain that Montana does not consider intoxication evidence misleading-but rather considers it relevant-for the determination of a person's capacity to form the requisite mental state.

A State's placement of a significant limitation on the right to defend against the State's accusations "requires that the competing interest be closely examined." Chambers, 410 U. S., at 295. Montana has specified that to prove guilt, the State must establish that the defendant acted purposely or knowingly, but has prohibited a category of defendants from effectively disputing guilt through presentation of evidence relevant to that essential element. And the evidence is indisputably relevant: The Montana Supreme Court held that evidence of intoxication is relevant to proof of mental state, 272 Mont., at 122-123, 900 P. 2d, at 265, and furthermore, § 45-2-203's exception for involuntary intoxication shows that the legislature does consider intoxication relevant to mental state. Montana has barred the defendant's use of a category of relevant, exculpatory evidence for the express purpose of improving the State's likelihood of winning a conviction against a certain type of defendant. The plurality's observation that all evidentiary rules that exclude exculpatory evidence reduce the State's burden to prove its case, ante, at 55, is beside the point. The purpose of the familiar evidentiary rules is not to alleviate the State's burden, but rather to vindicate some other goal or value-e. g., to ensure the reliability and competency of evidence or to encourage effective communications within certain relationships. Such rules mayor may not help the prosecution, and when they do help, do so only incidentally. While due process does not "ba[r] States from making changes... that have the effect of making it easier for the prosecution to obtain convictions," McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U. S., at 89, n. 5 (emphasis added), an evidentiary rule whose sole pur pose is to boost the State's likelihood of conviction distorts the adversary process. Cf. Washington, 388 U. S., at 25 (Harlan, J., concurring in result). Unlike Chambers and Washington, where the State at least claimed that the evidence at issue was unreliable, Montana does not justify its rule on grounds such as that intoxication evidence is unreliable, cumulative, privileged, or irrelevant. The sole purpose for this disallowance is to keep from the jury's consideration a category of evidence that helps the defendant's case and weakens the government's case.

The plurality brushes aside this Court's precedents as variously fact bound, irrelevant, and dicta. I would afford more weight to principles enunciated in our case law than is accorded in the plurality's opinion today. It seems to me that a State may not first determine the elements of the crime it wishes to punish, and then thwart the accused's defense by categorically disallowing the very evidence that would prove him innocent.


The plurality does, however, raise an important argument for the statute's validity: the disallowance, at common law, of consideration of voluntary intoxication where a defendant's state of mind is at issue. Because this disallowance was permitted at common law, the plurality argues, its disallowance by Montana cannot amount to a violation of a "fundamental principle of justice." Ante, at 43-51.

From 1551 until its shift in the 19th century, the commonlaw rule prevailed that a defendant could not use intoxication as an excuse or justification for an offense, or, it must be assumed, to rebut establishment of a requisite mental state. "Early law was indifferent to the defence of drunkenness because the theory of criminal liability was then too crude and too undeveloped to admit of exceptions... But with the refinement in the theory of criminal liability... a modification of the rigid old rule on the defence of drunkenness was to be expected." Singh, History of the Defense of Drunkenness in English Criminal Law, 49 L. Q. Rev. 528, 537 (1933) (footnote omitted). As the plurality concedes, that significant modification took place in the 19th century. Courts acknowledged the fundamental incompatibility of a particular mental-state requirement on the one hand, and the disallowance of consideration of evidence that might defeat establishment of that mental state on the other. In the slow progress typical of the common law, courts began to recognize that evidence of intoxication was properly admissible for the purpose of ascertaining whether a defendant had met the required mental-state element of the offense charged.

This recognition, courts believed, was consistent with the common-law rule that voluntary intoxication did not excuse commission of a crime; rather, an element of the crime, the requisite mental state, was not satisfied and therefore the crime had not been committed. As one influential mid-19th century case explained: "Drunkenness is no excuse for crime; yet, in that class of crimes and offences which depend upon guilty knowledge, or the coolness and deliberation with which they shall have been perpetrated, to constitute their commission... [drunkenness] should be submitted to the consideration of the Jury"; for, where the crime required a particular mental state, "it is proper to show any state or condition of the person that is adverse to the proper exercise of the mind" in order "[t]o rebut" the mental state or "to enable the Jury to judge rightly of the matter." Pigman v. State, 14 Ohio 555, 556-557 (1846); accord, Cline v. State, 43 Ohio St. 332, 334, 1 N. E. Rep. 22, 23 (1885) ("The rule is well settled that intoxication is not a justification or an excuse for crime.... But in many cases evidence of intoxication is admissible with a view to the question whether a crime has been committed;.... As [mental state], in such case, is of the essence of the offense, it is possible that in proving intoxication you go far to prove that no offense was committed").

Courts across the country agreed that where a subjective mental state was an element of the crime to be proved, the defense must be permitted to show, by reference to intoxication, the absence of that element. One court commented that it seemed "incontrovertible and to be universally applicable" that "where the nature and essence of the crime are made by law to depend upon the peculiar state and condition of the criminal's mind at the time with reference to the act done, drunkenness may be a proper subject for the consideration of the jury, not to excuse or mitigate the offence but to show that it was not committed." People v. Robinson, 2 Park. Crim. 235, 306 (N. Y. Sup. Ct. 1855). See also Swan v. State, 23 Tenn. 136, 141-142 (1843); State v. Donovan, 61 Iowa 369, 370-371, 16 N. W. 206, 206-207 (1883); Mooney v. State, 33 Ala. 419, 420 (1859); Aszman v. State, 123 Ind. 347, 24 N. E. 123 (1890) (citing cases).

With similar reasoning, the Montana Supreme Court recognized the incompatibility of a jury instruction pursuant to § 45-2-203 in conjunction with the legislature's decision to require a mental state of "purposely" or "knowingly" for deliberate homicide. It held that intoxication is relevant to formation of the requisite mental state. Unless a defendant is proved beyond a reasonable doubt to have possessed the requisite mental state, he did not commit the offense. Elimination of a critical category of defense evidence precludes a defendant from effectively rebutting the mental-state element, while simultaneously shielding the State from the effort of proving the requisite mental state in the face of negating evidence. It was this effect on the adversarial process that persuaded the Montana Supreme Court that the disallowance was unconstitutional. The Due Process Clause protects those "'principle[s] of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamentaL'" Patterson v. New York, 432 U. S., at 202 (citations omitted). At the time the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, the common-law rule on consideration of intoxication evidence was in flux. The plurality argues that rejection of the historical rule in the 19th century simply does not establish that the "'new common-law'" rule is a principle of procedure so "deeply rooted" as to be ranked "fundamental." Ante, at 46-48. But to determine whether a fundamental principle of justice has been violated here, we cannot consider only the historical disallowance of intoxication evidence, but must also consider the "fundamental principle" that a defendant has a right to a fair opportunity to put forward his defense, in adversarial testing where the State must prove the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. As concepts of mens rea and burden of proof developed, these principles came into conflict, as the shift in the common law in the 19th century reflects.


JUSTICE GINSBURG concurs in the Court's judgment based on her determination that § 45-2-203 amounts to a redefinition of the offense that renders evidence of voluntary intoxication irrelevant to proof of the requisite mental state. The concurrence emphasizes that States enjoy wide latitude in defining the elements of crimes and concludes that, "[c]omprehended as a measure redefining mens rea, §45-2-203 encounters no constitutional shoal." Ante, at 58.

A state legislature certainly possesses the authority to define the offenses it wishes to punish. If the Montana Legislature chose to redefine this offense so as to alter the requisite mental-state element, the due process problem presented in this case would not be at issue.

There is, however, no indication that such a "redefinition" occurred. JUSTICE GINSBURG'S reading of Montana law is plainly inconsistent with that given by the Montana Supreme Court, and therefore cannot provide a valid basis to uphold § 45-2-203's operation. "We are, of course, bound to accept the interpretation of [state] law by the highest court of the State." Hortonville Joint School Dist. No.1 v. Hortonville Ed. Assn., 426 U. S. 482, 488 (1976); accord, Groppi v. Wisconsin, 400 U. S. 505, 507 (1971); Kingsley Int'l Pictures Corp. v. Regents of Univ. of N. Y., 360 U. S. 684, 688 (1959). The Montana Supreme Court held that evidence of voluntary intoxication was relevant to the requisite mental state. 272 Mont., at 122, 900 P. 2d, at 265. And in summing up the court's holding, Justice Nelson's concurrence explains that while the legislature may enact the statutes it chooses, § 452-203 "effectively and impermissibly... lessens the burden of the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt an essential element of the offense charged-the mental state elementby statutorily precluding the jury from considering the very evidence that might convince them that the State had not proven that element." Id., at 128, 900 P. 2d, at 268. The Montana Supreme Court's decision cannot be read consistently with a "redefinition" of the offense.

Because the management of criminal justice is within the province of the States, Patterson, supra, at 201-202, this Court is properly reluctant to interfere in the States' authority in these matters. Nevertheless, the Court must invalidate those rules that violate the requirements of due process. The plurality acknowledges that a reduction of the State's burden through disallowance of exculpatory evidence is unconstitutional if it violates a principle of fairness. Ante, at 55. I believe that such a violation is present here. Montana's disallowance of consideration of voluntary-intoxication evidence removes too critical a category of relevant, exculpatory evidence from the adversarial process by prohibiting the defendant from making an essential argument and permitting the prosecution to benefit from its suppression. Montana's purpose is to increase the likelihood of conviction of a certain class of defendants, who might otherwise be able to prove that they did not satisfy a requisite element of the offense. The historical fact that this disallowance once existed at common law is not sufficient to save the statute today. I would affirm the judgment of the Montana Supreme Court.


3 As the United States observed, it is generally within the States' domain "to determine what are the elements of criminal responsibility." Id., at 19-20.

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