Dr Neil Stanley Independent Sleep Expert
© Dr. Neil Stanley 2013-2019
Sleep and the law You may have seen cases in the press where people have claimed that they have committed crimes whilst asleep therefore did not know what they were doing and thus are not guilty of that crime. Essentially the law says that in order for a crime to have been committed there need to be both a ‘guilty act’ and a ‘guilty mind’. Now in the ‘sleep’ crimes no one is denying there was not a guilty act but what about the guilty mind? Did they intend to commit the crime and did they understand what they were doing? In the past if you were judged to lack a guilty mind you would most probably be considered a lunatic and sent to an asylum (it is also this lack of a ‘guilty’ mind which means that young children are judged not to be criminally liable). Sleep related crimes pose a problem for the law as the person is obviously not a lunatic but is claiming, because they were asleep, not to have known what they were doing. There are essentially three defences that have been used in the courts 1. Sleep walking - happens during the very deepest stages of sleep and is not related to dreams. When you sleep walk you can carry out basic over-learned behaviours. This may be a problem if you do the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time e.g. you sleepwalk to another bedroom and get into bed with your young niece who happens to be staying with you. 2. Sexsomnia - this is an extreme variant of sleepwalking where a man has, or tries to have, penetrative sex. 3. REM Behaviour disorder - when you dream you usually loose muscle tone so you are unable to act out your dreams, however in some rare cases this temporary ‘paralysis’ does not happen and so you are able to act out what you are doing in your dreams e.g. if you are dreaming of attacking a dinosaur you could potentially carry out the same attack, in reality, on your bed partner/roommate. The law has to ask two questions of a defence; is it possible? And is it probable? Now whilst these conditions undoubtedly do exist, and thus it is quite possible for it to be the explanation for what occurred, the degree of probability that they did occur is much harder to ascertain scientifically and it is left to the judge and jury to reach a conclusion as to the veracity of the defence on the basis of the information presented to them. The problem there is that they are not sleep experts and thus may have a less than comprehensive appreciation of the information given in court. This has, in my opinion, meant that some of the successful uses of the ‘sleep’ defence, whilst possible, have been less than probable.