Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

State v. Sterling, 680 P.2d 301 (Kan. 1984).

This case addresses the following issue:

Is voluntary intoxication a defense for criminal damage to property?

This case explored the issue of whether voluntary intoxication (intoxicating oneself with the purpose of becoming impaired) was a defense for criminal damage to property. In exploring this issue, the court held that, unless the defendant injured, damaged, or substantially impaired the use of any property with intent to injure or defraud an insurer or lienholder, voluntary intoxication could not be used as a defense for criminal damage to property. Id. at 305.

In this case, the defendant was convicted of two counts of criminal damage to property. Id. at 302. In the first count, the defendant was convicted of willfully damaging a 1979 Chevrolet Impala belonging to another and without the consent of the owner. Id. In the second count, the defendant was convicted of willfully damaging a 1972 Chevrolet pickup truck belonging to another and without the consent of the owner. Id. The State of Kansas appealed this case all the way to the Supreme Court of Kansas and the sole issue presented was whether criminal damage to property (as stated in the Kansas statute) was a specific intent crime to which voluntary intoxication was a defense so as to require an instruction to the jury on voluntary intoxication. Id.

In answering this question, the court first highlighted the distinction between general and specific intent. Id. at 303. According to the court, “The distinction between a general intent crime and a crime of specific intent is whether the statute defining the crime in question identified or required a further particular intent which must accompany the prohibited acts.” Id. Essentially, in a specific intent crime, some type of additional intent is required that goes beyond the general intent needed. Id. Additionally, the court looked to an old 1913 case, State v. Guthridge, which held that voluntary intoxication was not a defense to a general intent crime but may be a defense to a specific intent crime. Id. at 304. Therefore, the court had to determine whether the Kansas statute on criminal damage to property required specific intent (voluntary intoxication was a defense) or general intent (voluntary intoxication was not a defense). Id.

In order to determine whether criminal damage to property was a specific or general intent crime, the court examined the statute in question. Id. The Kansas statute on criminal damage to property was divided into two parts. Id. An individual could be found guilty of criminal damage to property if he or she “(a) knowingly damaged, destroyed, defaced or substantially impaired the use of any property in which another had an interest without the consent of such other person” or “(b) damaged, destroyed, defaced or substantially impaired the use of any property with intent to injure or defraud an insurer or lienholder.” Id. After review of the statute, the court determined that subsection (a) was a general intent crime and subsection (b) was a specific intent crime. Id. at 305. In this case, the court determined that the defendant’s actions fit within subsection (a); therefore, voluntary intoxication could not be used as a defense. Id. Nevertheless, had the defendant damaged the property with the intent to injure or defraud an insurer or lienholder (subsection (b)), he could have used voluntary intoxication as a defense and an instruction would have had to be given to the jury because it would have been a specific intent crime. Id.