Sleep Driving Is the Newest Defense Against DWIs

It sounds like a story out of a dream. After driving at speeds of nearly 100mph, a man wakes in his “sleeping clothes” to find he’s crashed his car into a median after rear-ending and injuring a fellow motorist, and he’s fractured his own spine.

Truth in the nightmare

As unlikely as this sounds, the “sleep driving” defense is being argued more and more frequently, with varying levels of success, especially in cases of alleged drunk driving and sexual assault. “Sleep driving'” is exactly what David Hamnett, a 47-year-old resident of Lancashire, England, said caused the accident which occurred Saturday, July 9, 2011.

Hamnett, a marine engineer, was on the M5, a route that connects his Ormskirk home to his job in Devon. He reportedly drove his Volvo S40 erratically and at increasingly high speeds when the incident occurred. The crash, which began with the rear end of another vehicle and ended with at highway’s center partition, caused so much damage to Hamnett’s vehicle that the rescue team was forced to cut him out of the car’s wreckage.

They found a man who was clearly intoxicated (twice the legal driving limit), barefoot, and wearing a T-shirt and shorts, an outfit he would later describe as his pajamas.

A sleep driving defense

A married man with two children, Hamnett admitted to drinking whiskey and wine before putting on his “sleeping clothes” and going to bed, and claimed that due to his parasomnia he had absolutely no recollection of driving, and simply woke up to find himself trapped in the wreckage of his collapsed Volvo.

In his defense, Hamnett said: “I was in my pajamas, I had no money and wallet, and I had just driven all the way back from work, so why on earth would I want to go back there on a Saturday morning?”

Dr John O’Reilly corroborated Hamnett’s parasomnia claim, testifying that Hamnett had previously been treated for sleep disorders at the North West Regional Sleep Service in Liverpool’s Aintree University Hospital. During the time of the accident, Hamnett was being actively treated for sleep apnea, which causes sufferers to stop breathing while they are asleep.

A questionable crime

Still, the probability of such an extended episode of parasomnia, involving a two-hour, 150-mile drive before the crash occurred, has been questioned by individuals like Dr Chris Idzikowski of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre who called Hamnett’s version of events “highly unlikely.”

Nonetheless, Judge Peter Barrie, who called the incident “highly dangerous … high speed, weaving on a motorway,” and reminded Hamnett that he and “occupants of another car suffered significant injuries,” did not impose jail time on Hamnett due to the “aggravating feature” of Hamnett’s blood alcohol levels.

Instead, the judge agreed that the defendant’s sleeping disorder was real and that it was possible he’d been asleep when he entered his vehicle on the night in question.

The judge also made it clear that he believed the majority of Hamnett’s fateful trip had occurred while he was conscious. Barrie convicted Hamnett of dangerous driving and sentencing him to 12 months of community service with a suspended license for six of those months, to be followed by a driving test.

Since the crash Hamnett has lost weight, which he says has improved his sleeping and stopped his sleepwalking.

Defending against DWI

Building a defense against DWI and DUI has become increasingly difficult over the years. Well-intentioned groups like MADD and SADD have taken the reins in many municipalities where they feel drunk driving isn’t being seriously addressed, and made it complicated and expensive to argue against DWI and DUI charges.

Knowing the charges against you, and the mitigating and aggravating factors that offer avenues for defense is essential for successfully clearing a drunk or impaired driving charge. For someone like Mr. Hamnett, a citizen with no previous history of DUI, the “sleep driving” defense was critical to preserving his freedom.