Before considering proposals for a better system for the legal categorization of parasomnias, it is important to note that parasomnias usually surface and result in violence due to exacerbating factors. These can include family history, drug/alcohol abuse, stress, and/or sleep deprivation, among others. Since many of these factors are external, they would be categorized as sane automatisms. However, many idiopathic cases of parasomnia as well as those associated with family history would be categorized as insane automatisms. Clearly, the current endeavor to label violence during parasomnia as a sane or insane automatism is counterintuitive. It is better to appreciate that violence during parasomnias manifests in different ways and is evoked by different factors in different individuals. In concordance, there should be different levels of legal responsibility and appropriate legal consequences. The unclear dichotomy between sane and insane automatisms cannot be applied easily and sensibly.
Instead, consider a gradient based upon a notion of a reasonable degree of control. It would lead to more fruitful prescription of legal responsibility and consequences. On one extreme would be automatisms caused by factors within one’s control. Individuals with such automatisms would be held legally responsible for their actions. Aristotle alludes to this concept with an example in his work Ethics: even though a drunken individual does not act voluntarily or with full capacity while he is intoxicated, he acts voluntarily and with mental capacity when choosing to become intoxicated and should therefore be held accountable for doing so . An individual whose parasomnia episodes are triggered by excessive alcohol consumption or other factors within their control mirrors this example. Under current jurisprudence, such a case would be classified as a sane automatism since alcohol consumption is an external factor, and the parasomniac individual would be acquitted. By contrast, in the new schema, the actions of the parasomniac individual would be classified as automatisms triggered by factors within one’s control, and the individual would be held legally responsible for his actions.
Though this new manner of classification is not foolproof, it is clearly an improvement from the sane vs. insane automatism schema. To determine how to classify an automatism, the operative question would be “Could the individual, at the time that the instigating factor(s) came into play, be reasonably expected to act differently so as to change the outcome?” This question gauges the level of control and decision-making ability involved in the circumstances that put one in a vulnerable position for violent parasomnias. Consider this question in one of the previous examples. For the individual who sleepwalks due to a family history, the answer to this question would be no. It is important to note that he could still attempt to actively manage his sleepwalking and prevent putting himself in situations that further exacerbate his tendency to sleepwalk, so a family history should not automatically warrant release from responsibility.
This new schema provides a meaningful division with regard to the question of legal responsibility. People who exhibit automatistic behavior due to factors out of their control should not be held responsible for their actions while people who perform automatisms due to factors within their control should be held accountable. There is some middle ground between these two extremes that can be left to the interpretation of the judge and jury.
There is also a more natural division in terms of legal consequences. Since people who exhibit automatistic behavior due to factors out of their control cannot reasonably be held responsible for their actions, they should be acquitted for a criminal offense committed while in such an automatistic state. Still, while they are not guilty of the crime in itself, they should be held accountable for seeking appropriate treatment or intervention options to manage or eliminate their particular sleep disorder. Consider this qualification in the context of cases in which even a moderate amount of a particular prescription medication or alcohol can evoke parasomnias. For instance, think of a family that is particularly sensitive to tequila. If any of the individuals in this family drink even a small amount of tequila, they will sleepwalk and, during these sleepwalking episodes, attempt to engage in dangerous behaviors such as attempting to drive. Consider this in the context of the key question: “Could the individual, at the time that the instigating factor(s) came into play, be reasonably expected to act differently so as to change the outcome?” This family, because they are aware of the likelihood of their adverse reaction to tequila, could be reasonably expected to act differently so that they do not sleepwalk and put themselves and others in harm’s way. However, consider this paradigm in the context of an individual who is not aware of his heightened sensitivity to a particular drug or alcohol. For example, the medication zolpidem (Ambien) has been shown to produce parasomnias in some individuals even when taken as directed [35–37]. If an individual took the medication for the first time in the manner in which he was instructed and had no reason to suspect that this could cause him to act in a dangerous or uncharacteristic way, any resulting automatisms are beyond his control. No one can reasonably expect these individuals to not take a medication that a doctor tells them will assuage their complaints.
Under the proposed system of classification, an initial pardon should be applied for these scenarios. Assuming the amount of drug/alcohol consumption was reasonable and that the individual had no reason to suspect an adverse reaction from consumption, his first incident would be excused, as he cannot reasonably be expected to act any other way. However, once he realizes the substance’s effects on him, he should know to avoid the drug or alcohol that evokes parasomnias and subsequent violence. If an additional offense occurs after the individual can be reasonably expected to be aware of his sensitivity, then he would be held responsible. In these contrasting scenarios, the question “Could the individual, at the time that the instigating factor(s) came into play, be reasonably expected to act differently so as to change the outcome?” provides an adequate rule of thumb.
On the other hand, people who commit violent automatisms due to factors that are within their control can be held responsible for their actions and should be tried in a court of law. However, since the automatism had no mens rea, the automatistic act itself is not considered the crime. Instead, they should be held accountable for putting themselves in the situation where they are vulnerable to violent parasomnias. In other words, they should be held responsible for the factor over which they had control (such as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, etc.) and tried accordingly for their recklessness and/or failure to take appropriate precautions. This can be compared to the recent legal cases in which sleep-deprived drivers have been held accountable for deaths that result from them falling asleep behind the wheel – usually, it is a charge of manslaughter. In these cases, a stipulation is usually made that the sleep deprivation has to result from some sort of recklessness or gross negligence on the driver’s part. For example, think of a college student who pulls an all-nighter and then gets in a car and finds himself falling asleep at the wheel. This student had ample opportunity to choose not to pull the all-nighter or choose not to drive, especially when he realized he was falling asleep while driving. He would be held responsible for any resulting harm. Sleep deprivation is also an exacerbating factor for parasomnias, so this same example can be extrapolated to violent acts performed during episodes of parasomnia, especially if violent automatisms were a foreseeable consequence of the sleep deprivation.
Applying this new classification system to the case of Kenneth Parks proves quite interesting. During his trial, his defense presented Parks’ history of sleepwalking since childhood and proclivity for long, elaborate episodes of sleepwalking when exposed to various exacerbating factors, especially mental stress . At the time of the incident, Parks was incredibly anxious due to his upcoming embezzlement trial . From the numerous arguments of his defense to support a defense of sleepwalking, it seemed evident that Park should have been reasonably aware of his tendency to sleepwalk, his sensitivity to stressors, and his likelihood of engaging in dangerous activities like driving while sleepwalking. Therefore, it can be considered negligent for him not to have sought medical care and taken appropriate precautions to, if not prevent sleepwalking, at least ensure his and others’ safety during these episodes. In the context of the significant mental stress from his embezzlement trial, it can even be considered reckless on his part. Therefore, Parks’ violence would fall into the category of automatisms due to factors within the defendant’s control.
The entire discussion of Parks’ case up to this point has functioned on the assumption that his plea of parasomnia was an honest one. It is important to consider the possibility that Parks was lying, and it was not a true case of somnambulism. During his trial, this was hotly debated – each side grew fierce in their arguments, and both made plausible claims in favor of their opinions .