[Guest post by DRJ]
Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal Health Journal reported that the side effects of prescription sleep aides like Ambien and Lunesta may be as significant as those of earlier generation sedatives such as Halcion, which has been banned in some countries. Side effects include amnesia, confusion, agitation and other behavior disturbances:
“One woman woke up with a paintbrush in her hand, having painted her front door in her sleep. People have set fire to their kitchens while trying to cook, cursed their bosses on the phone and crashed their cars into trees — all in a sleeping-pill-induced haze and with no memory afterward.”
Experts aren’t sure why some people seem more susceptible than others, but they speculate that “sleep medication may act on brain circuits unevenly, leaving the parts that govern ‘automatic’ behaviors like eating and driving active while shutting down the centers of judgment and control.”
Cases in which defendants have successfully asserted a sleepwalking defense to criminal charges are few and far between. In this 2005 Canada case, a defendant was acquitted of rape after asserting the sexomnia defense – a genetic condition that combines sleepwalking, sexual acts and alcohol. And in this 2005 UK case, a defendant escaped rape charges by asserting the defense of “automania” (sleepwalking with sex). A defendant in this 2002 Massachusetts case asserted a sleepwalking defense but jurors stated he was acquitted on other grounds.
The reluctance to assert and recognize a sleepwalking defense may change as a result of this report, not only because it validates that some people are more susceptible to sleepwalking but also because there are so many people taking these drugs.
In addition, as noted in this 2006 report in CHEST – the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians (for specialists in pulmonology, critical care, sleep medicine, and related disciplines) – it is estimated that 2% of the population suffers from violent behaviors while sleeping, including incidents of murder, suicide, and sexual offenses. Thus, I suspect it won’t be long until we see more defendants asserting this defense, perhaps successfully.
In any event, if you take sleep aides, experts offer this advice: Don’t take sleeping pills when you are solely responsible for small children. If you do take them, unplug your phone because the ringing may prompt an episode of sleepwalking. Hide your car keys and, if all else fails, put an alarm on your bedroom door.
That should be enough to keep you up all night worrying.