Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Crimes of Sleepwalkers

By Tim Hannan

Sleep experts and lawyers are wrestling over the criminal responsibility of sleepers.

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For a person to be convicted of a crime, it must be demonstrated that the act was committed (actus reus) and that it was intended (mens rea). Yet in several rare but well-publicised cases, the accused person has claimed to be asleep or sleepwalking at the time of the event, and thus to have lacked conscious awareness of its nature and implications. In these cases, the court must determine whether the person was in a state of automatism, and thus not responsible for the acts that occurred. A forum at last month’s annual conference of the Australasian Sleep Association explored the complexities of the interaction of sleep medicine and the law in this area, and identified several difficult questions for both practitioners and courts.

Recent cases in Australia and overseas have highlighted the contribution of sleep disorders to tragic accidents or violent acts. Some cases found that fatal motor vehicle accidents resulted from excessive sleepiness brought on by obstructive sleep apnoea or some other primary sleep disorder. In other cases, the accused has claimed that violent acts such as physical or sexual assaults and homicide occurred while in an abnormal sleep state.

In law, for a conviction to be made it is necessary that the act of the accused person is voluntary: it must be determined both that the accused was conscious of its nature and that he or she...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.