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Is Amnesia a Defense to Criminal Charges?

Posted on May 12, 2021 in Criminal Defense

To be convicted of a crime, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant had the mental state to commit the crime. In most cases, proof of intent or recklessness is required to achieve a guilty verdict. Accidentally injuring someone, for example, does not constitute the crime of physical assault in Arizona. It may be possible to base a defense on lack of intent or mental incapacity. A rarely used defense related to a defendant’s mental state is amnesia.

What Is Amnesia?

Amnesia is a type of memory loss that is often temporary. Amnesia can interfere with a person’s ability to remember events or experiences and recognize people or places. It can be caused by head trauma, brain injuries, seizures, strokes, the side effects of a medication and emotional shock. Although amnesia is generally not a permanent medical condition, most patients are unable to remember the period of time during an episode. These memories are often permanently lost, even if the person recalls other memories.

If a defendant is facing charges for a crime involving amnesia, it is important that he or she goes to a doctor for an official medical diagnosis. A physician can diagnose amnesia using balance and reflex tests, cognitive ability and comprehension examinations, and tests to see if the patient can recall common knowledge. A doctor can also use a CT or MRI scan to check for brain damage that could cause amnesia. Obtaining an amnesia diagnosis can make it a more viable piece of evidence to use during a criminal case.

Can Amnesia Be Used as a Defense?

It may be possible to use amnesia to argue in a criminal court that the defendant did not have the state of mind to intentionally commit a crime and, therefore, is not at fault. This defense does not argue that the defendant did not commit the crime; instead, it alleges that the defendant did not consciously commit the crime because he or she was not coherent at the time.

The issue in using this defense is that being unaware of one’s actions is not always evidence that the defendant did not intend to commit the crime. Amnesia is generally viewed as a weak defense because a judge can take the stance that just because the defendant does not remember committing the crime does not mean he or she is not guilty.

Amnesia is also a weak defense because it is difficult to prove with a level of medical probability. It has a high rate of abuse because anyone can say he or she does not remember committing the crime. If this automatically protected defendants from criminal convictions, anyone charged with a crime would use this argument. For these reasons, amnesia is typically not used as a defense to criminal charges.

Amnesia in Other Parts of a Criminal Case

Although amnesia alone might not be a strong defense to criminal charges, it could still be an important piece of evidence. A Phoenix criminal lawyer may be able to use it to prove that the defendant is incompetent to stand trial. Incompetency due to amnesia can interfere with the defendant’s ability to discuss the case with his or her attorney and understand the legal charges against him or her. This argument can delay the criminal trial until the defendant’s competency is restored.

In addition, amnesia may be used as a factor in sentencing a defendant who is found guilty of committing the crime. Although amnesia might not have gotten the defendant’s charges dismissed or resulted in a not-guilty verdict, it may lead to a lighter sentence. A judge may take amnesia into consideration and give a lesser sentence based on the defendant’s impaired state of mind at the time of the crime. This is not a guarantee, however; each case is unique, and judges determine sentences on a case-by-case basis.