Are there any proscriptions on the custodial interrogation of people who are under the influence of alcohol or other mind-altering drugs? If not, are there any laws that prohibit offering intoxicating substances to a person in custody?

I am interested not only in the U.S. but also in other countries where coercive interrogation is prohibited. But to offer an illustration: In the U.S. police may arrest a suspect of a crime who happens to be drunk. If, following the Miranda warning, that suspect does not invoke the right to silence or to a lawyer is a subsequent interrogation admissible evidence in a trial? Or, if a suspect is arrested who is not drunk: Police are supposed to provide food and water to subjects in their custody. Is there any legal restriction on offering subjects alcohol or other intoxicants prior to or during interrogation?

  • 2
    "How drunk," I think is an important factor. A suspect so drunk that they couldn't understand their rights is very different a suspect who is drunk but still lucid. May 2, 2021 at 11:54

1 Answer 1


SCOTUS suggests in Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, that a subject's

confession was constitutionally inadmissible if it was adduced by police questioning during a period when petitioner's will was overborne by a drug having the properties of a "truth serum."

In Miranda v. Arizona, it is held that

If the interrogation continues without the presence of an attorney and a statement is taken, a heavy burden rests on the government to demonstrate that the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived his privilege against self-incrimination and his right to retained or appointed counsel. Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U. S. 478, 490, n. 14. This Court has always set high standards of proof for the waiver of constitutional rights, Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U. S. 458 (1938), and we reassert these standards as applied to in-custody interrogation.

Subsequently in Colorado v. Connelly, defendant suffered from psychosis that "interfered with his ability to make free and rational choices and, although not preventing him from understanding his rights, motivated his confession." The court found that

Coercive police activity is a necessary predicate to finding that a confession is not "voluntary" within the meaning of the Due Process Clause. Here, the taking of respondent's statements and their admission into evidence constituted no violation of that Clause. While a defendant's mental condition may be a "significant" factor in the "voluntariness" calculus, this does not justify a conclusion that his mental condition, by itself and apart from its relation to official coercion, should ever dispose of the inquiry into constitutional "voluntariness."

In the Massachusetts case Commonwealth v. Hilton,  443 Mass. 597, the Mass. Supreme Court (in the first ruling) said that

We see no error in the judge's finding that the defendant's mental infirmities were such that she did not understand the Miranda warnings, and we therefore conclude that statements made after the interrogation did become custodial were properly suppressed.

On remand and after in a second appear, in Commonwealth v. Hilton, 823 N.E.2d 383, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that

a finding that the defendant was unable to make a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of her Miranda rights is not enough, standing alone, to support the finding that her statements were involuntary.

The court found that the defendant was competent to stand trial contrary to the trial judge's determination, and said that

because we are unable to determine if the judge would have allowed the supplemental motion to suppress without the erroneous findings, we vacate the order for suppression and remand for further consideration.

The point here is that being mentally disabled is not per se proof that a confession is involuntary.

Turning specifically to intoxication, in Colorado v. Jewell, the trial court suppressed a confession while intoxicated "based on its finding that Jewell was too intoxicated to knowingly and intelligently waive his right to remain silent." The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the suppression

[b]ecause the facts do not support the trial court's determination that Jewell's intoxication was so severe that he was demonstrably unable to knowingly and intelligently waive his Miranda rights

which leaves open the possibility that there is some such degree of intoxication. The court determined that

Intoxication only invalidates an otherwise valid Miranda waiver if the court finds through a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant was incapable of understanding the nature of his rights and the ramifications of waiving them.

Subsequent discussion partially fleshes out how one might determine whether a waiver is unknowing or unintelligent. Citing Colorado v. Kaiser, the court suggested considering

whether “the defendant seemed oriented to his or her surroundings and situation;  whether the defendant's answers were responsive and appeared to be the product of a rational thought process;  whether the defendant was able to appreciate the seriousness of his or her predicament, including the possibility of being incarcerated;  whether the defendant had the foresight to attempt to deceive the police in hopes of avoiding prosecution;  whether the defendant expressed remorse for his or her actions;  and whether the defendant expressly stated that he or she understood their rights.”

One issue was raised regarding "cases where, as here, the intoxication is self-induced." A fundamental result of the mass of Miranda case law is that coercive actions by police invalidate a confession. Getting a suspect drunk(er) would be a clear case of a coercive police action, and presumably would be inadmissible under Townsend v. Sain.

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