Oregon Allows Sleep Driving As Possible Defense for Drunk Driving

As a Massachusetts OUI attorney, there will be rare cases where a driver had no intention of driving, but because of some sort of disorder or episode, got behind the wheel without any intention of driving. A question in these cases arises when the person driving is drunk and whether they can be held criminally liable for drunk driving with the lack of intent to drive. The Oregon Supreme Court recently addressed this question State v. Newman and determined a driver must commit some voluntary act in order to be held criminally liable.

In State v. Newman, the defendant was pulled over in a clearly intoxicated state, blew a .15 on the breathalyzer and performed very poorly on the field sobriety tests. In what would seem to be an open and shut case, the defendant offered evidence that he never knew he was driving drunk because of a sleep walking disorder. The defendant claimed he walked home after having drinks with friends and went to sleep. He claims it was an episode of “sleep driving” that caused him to drive drunk. The question then becomes, can evidence that the defendant did not voluntarily drive be a defense to a drunk driving charge.

What the prosecution centered their argument on and what the trial court based the original decision on was that drunk driving is a strict liability crime. Being a strict liability crime would make whether the driving was voluntary or not irrelevant and the sleep driving defense worthless. If drunk driving was a strict liability crime, it would not matter what the circumstances led to the driver driving in his condition; if he drove over the limit, it would be a crime every time.

The Supreme Court of Oregon overturned this ruling and cited a state statute that stated there is a minimal requirement for criminal liability is the performance by a person of conduct which includes a voluntary act or an omission to perform an act which the person is capable of performing. What this decision does is opens the door for the defendant to offer evidence that he did not commit a voluntary act when entering the vehicle and operating it while intoxicated. Instead, he will use a medical expert witness to try and prove that he was not aware of the situation and was in fact sleepwalking when getting into the car. Because of this decision, if the driver did not commit a voluntary act in beginning to drive, there will be no liability.

It is important to note that this decision does not allow everybody to state it was a sleepwalking episode when they started driving. The prosecution will still have the chance to prove in this case and any other case that there was no sleepwalking and it was in fact a voluntary act. Furthermore, drinking alcohol is in itself a voluntary act. Therefore, if voluntarily getting intoxicated directly leads or causes a disorder where the defendant involuntarily drives, it will not be a defense. This rule protects people who have medical conditions or other disorders where they have no control over what they are doing. When sleepwalking, many states hold that there can be no voluntary act needed for criminal liability and Oregon believes this is true in OUI cases. All states should follow Oregon as in these rare situations, it is of no fault of the defendant that they broke the law.

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