The Irresistible Impulse Test

The courts have recognized the criminal defense of insanity to excuse the behavior of a defendant. However, the courts have grappled with how to determine when a person is considered insane and how to prove insanity at trial.

Definition of the Irresistible Impulse Test

Several tests for the insanity defense have been devised with the one such test being the Irresistible Impulse Test, which argues that a defendant should not be held responsible for a crime because they could not control their actions, even though they knew the actions were wrong at the time.

The Irresistible Impulse Test was in response to criticisms of the M'Naghten Rule. Some legal commentators began to suggest expanding the M'Naghten definition of insanity to include more than a cognitive element. Such a test would encompass not only whether defendants know right from wrong but also whether they could control their impulses to commit wrong-doing.

History of the Irresistible Impulse Test

The Irresistible Impulse Test was first adopted by the Alabama Supreme Court in the 1887 case of Parsons v. State. The Alabama court stated that even though the defendant could tell right from wrong, he was subject to "the duress of such mental disease [that] he had ... lost the power to choose between right and wrong" and that "his free agency was at the time destroyed," and thus, "the alleged crime was so connected with such mental disease, in the relation of cause and effect, as to have been the product of it solely."

In so finding, the court assigned responsibility for the crime to the mental illness despite the defendant's ability to distinguish right from wrong. And therefore found the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity.

Proving Irresistible Impulse

In jurisdictions that use or incorporate the Irresistible Impulse Test as a criminal defense, defendants typically must present sufficient evidence to prove:

  1. The existence of mental illness; and
  2. That the mental illness caused the inability to control one's actions or conform one's conduct to the law.

As you can see, proving that a defendant was unable to control his or her actions at the time of a crime can be quite challenging. Often, it may require a medical examination and expert witness testimony from medical professionals who specialize in mental health conditions. The evidence would have to prove the diagnosis of a condition as well as its impact on the defendant's behavior, perhaps due to certain environmental triggers.

Criticism of the Test

The Irresistible Impulse Test gained acceptance in various states as an appendage to the M'Naghten Rule, under which knowledge of right versus wrong was still considered a vital part of any definition of insanity. In some cases, the Irresistible Impulse Test was considered to be a variation on M'Naghten; in others, it was considered to be a separate test. Though the Irresistible Impulse Test was considered to be an important corrective on M'Naghten's cognitive bias, it still came under some criticism of its own.

For example, it seemed to make the definition of insanity too broad, failing to take into account the impossibility of determining which acts were uncontrollable rather than merely uncontrolled, and also making it easier to fake insanity. The test was also criticized for being too narrow; like M'Naghten, the test seemed to exclude all but those totally unable to control their actions. Nevertheless, several states currently use this test along with the M'Naghten Rule to determine insanity, and the American Law Institute in its Model Penal Code definition of insanity adopted a modified version of it.

Questions About the Irresistible Impulse Test? Ask an Attorney

As noted, insanity defenses often require medical confirmation that a defendant was legally insane at the time of the crime, which can be an uphill battle, but one that's worth exploring. After all, it could result in a finding of not guilty due to the inability to form criminal intent. These defenses can be complicated, so it's important to discuss your case with a local criminal defense attorney to get your questions answered.

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