Could the Insanity Defense Work in Impeachment Proceedings?

2017-05-11 – Not guilty by reason of insanity.

You’ve heard the verdict many times, though it is actually pretty rare. The insanity defense is a legal excuse that permits an accused to escape conviction of a crime because they are suffering from some sort of mental disorder that prevented them from acting in accordance with the law.

The most famous statement of the insanity defense is the M’Naughten Rule, which came in a case of the murder of a secretary of the prime minister of England in a botched attempt to assassinate the prime minister himself. The M’Naughten Rule requires that, as a result of a mental disease or defect the accused—

  • Did not know their act was wrong, or
  • Did not understand the nature of their actions.

Another variation of the insanity defense is the irresistible impulse rule, which says that an accused may not be held criminally liable if they—

  • Could not control their actions even if they knew they were wrong.

One of these rules or some variation thereof is available as a defense in all jurisdictions, leading to verdicts of not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but insane.

I am unaware of either of these defenses being used in an impeachment proceeding.

But with our president acting in ways that can most charitably be called “not normal” and talk of impeachment is in the air, it is probably time to ask whether the insanity defense could prevent Donald Trump from being impeached in the House or convicted in the Senate.

The insanity plea doesn’t work in all crimes. Some crimes require a mental element (called mens rea) before an accused can be found guilty. First degree murder, for example, requires the perp to intend the action. Intention is a mental state, so the insanity plea is relevant. Involuntary manslaughter doesn’t have a mental element because the crime is (duh) involuntary. The insanity plea is not used in involuntary manslaughter.

What about impeachment?

Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution defines impeachment as follows:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Since the Constitution defines impeachment by referring to the listed crimes of treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors (that are presumably defined by the House in their articles of impeachment).

Treason is defined in the Constitution in Article III, Section 3, as follows:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

The other crimes are not defined in the Constitution. Bribery generally is considered to be receiving payment or other benefit in exchange for changing your behavior in an official act. Should Trump be accused of other high crimes or misdemeanors, we’d have to look at the definitions of those crimes to see how an insanity defense would be applied.

Should the insanity defense be ruled admissible, the following questions might be asked:

Did Donald Trump have a mental disease or defect relevant to the actions he would be accused of?

Did Donald Trump know his actions were wrong?

Did Donald Trump understand the nature of his actions?

Even if Donald Trump knew his actions were wrong, was he able to control his actions?

What do you think? 

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