Alcohol-Induced Blackout as a Criminal Defense or Mitigating Factor: An Evidence-Based Review and Admissibility as Scientific Evidence

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Abstract

Alcohol-related amnesia—alcohol blackout—is a common claim of criminal defendants. The generally held belief is that during an alcohol blackout, other cognitive functioning is severely impaired or absent. The presentation of alcohol blackout as scientific evidence in court requires that the science meets legal reliability standards (Frye, FRE702/Daubert). To determine whether “alcohol blackout” meets these standards, an evidence-based analysis of published scientific studies was conducted. A total of 26 empirical studies were identified including nine in which an alcohol blackout was induced and directly observed. No objective or scientific method to verify the presence of an alcoholic blackout while it is occurring or to confirm its presence retrospectively was identified. Only short-term memory is impaired and other cognitive functions—planning, attention, and social skills—are not impaired. Alcoholic blackouts would not appear to meet standards for scientific evidence and should not be admissible.

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