Alcohol-induced sleepwalking or confusional arousal as a defense to criminal behavior: A review of scientific evidence, methods and forensic considerations

Mark R. Pressman, Mark W. Mahowald, Carlos H. Schenck, Michel Cramer Bornemann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations

Abstract

An increasing number of criminal cases have claimed the defendant to be in a state of sleepwalking or related disorders induced by high quantities of alcohol. Sleepwalkers who commit violent acts, sexual assaults and other criminal acts are thought to be in a state of automatism, lacking conscious awareness and criminal intent. They may be acquitted in criminal trials. On the other hand, criminal acts performed as the result of voluntary alcohol intoxication alone cannot be used as a complete defense. The alcohol-induced sleepwalking criminal defense is most often based on past clinical or legal reports that ingestion of alcohol directly 'triggers' sleepwalking or increased the risk of sleepwalking by increasing the quantity of slow wave sleep (SWS). A review of the sleep medicine literature found no sleep laboratory studies of the effects of alcohol on the sleep of clinically diagnosed sleepwalkers. However, 19 sleep laboratory studies of the effects of alcohol on the sleep of healthy non-drinkers or social drinkers were identified with none reporting a change in SWS as a percentage of total sleep time. However, in six of 19 studies, a modest but statistically significant increase in SWS was found in the first 2-4 h. Among studies of sleep in alcohol abusers and abstinent abusers, the quantity and percentage of SWS was most often reduced and sometimes absent. Claims that direct alcohol provocation tests can assist in the forensic assessment of these cases found no support of any kind in the medical literature with not a single report of testing in normative or patient groups and no reports of validation testing of any sort. There is no direct experimental evidence that alcohol predisposes or triggers sleepwalking or related disorders. A legal defense of sleepwalking resulting from voluntarily ingested alcohol should be consistent with the current state of art sleep science and meet generally accepted requirements for the diagnosis of sleepwalking and other parasomnias.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)198-212
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Sleep Research
Volume16
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 2007

Keywords

  • Alcohol
  • Expert testimony
  • Forensic science
  • Polysomnography
  • Sleepwalking

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