Last month the Oregon Supreme Court threw out one man’s DUI conviction based on a curious defense: that he may have been asleep at the time of the drunken driving. The case is important not only for its oddity, but for its holding which says that the state must prove that the act of driving was intentional, knowing or reckless.
James Newman, a Portland native, was arrested back in 2008 for driving with a BAC at more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Newman was charged and ultimately had his case go to court where his attorney attempted to argue he was sleepdriving at the time of the incident and thus not legally responsible for his actions.
Newman’s attorney argued that the man had a long history of sleepwalking and the driving that night was similarly tied to this behavior. Apparently the night of the incident Newman had known he would be drinking so he chose to walk himself to the restaurant to meet friends. After dinner his friends drove him home and he went to sleep. Later that evening he was spotted by Portland police driving erratically. Newman’s attorney had a physician who was willing to testify that a person in a state of sleepwalking would be incapable of performing the voluntary act of driving given that such people are not actually conscious at the time. The lower court judge presiding over the case refused to hear the evidence and convicted Newman of drunk driving.
The case was appealed until finally the Oregon Supreme Court agreed to settle the matter, deciding that Newman’s conviction should be thrown out. The Court’s majority found that in Newman’s case and in other future cases, any defendant ought to be allowed to put on evidence which demonstrates that their criminal behavior was done unconsciously and thus involuntarily.
Specifically, the Court argued that Oregon law at a minimum requires that before a person can be convicted of any crime there must be proof that a voluntary act occurred. In Newman’s case, the Court said it was possible that no such voluntary act occurred. Newman ought to have the right to try and convince a jury that he was sleepwalking which would mean the jury could find him not guilty of drunk driving.
Some have criticized the ruling, saying that it potentially opens the floodgates for defendants to try and get out of trouble for a variety of other crimes. Some victims advocates say they are afraid that defendants could claim sleep rape or sleep murder and confuse juries into getting acquittals.
The case has now been remanded to the lower court to hear the argument again, this time with the understanding that Newman should be allowed to put on all his evidence concerning his sleep disorder.
Source: “Oregon Supreme Court allows man to use ‘sleep driving’ defense in DUI case,” by Michael Smith, published at DesertNews.com.