Sleep Apnea and Criminal Defense Cases

Sleep apnea is the most commonly diagnosed sleep disorder in our country. It is also fast becoming a favorite criminal defense among lawyers.

What Exactly Is Sleep Apnea Defense?

The gist of this defense is that the accused is not guilty for his or her actions because, as a result of sleep apnea, the accused suddenly fell asleep before doing whatever it is they are accused of.

As legal defense goes, this one has a fairly short history so far, only dating back to 1994 when it was invoked in a murder trial – and unsuccessfully at that. However, in the past couple of years, the sleep disorder has become the go-to diagnosis when it comes to defending against cases of fatal train crashes and car crashes.

Is Sleep Apnea a Valid Defense?

Can sleep apnea legitimately be an excuse for illegal behavior or is it merely a quick way to dodge culpability? The answer depends on whom you ask, but the experts say that there are situations where the disorder usually causes responsible people to commit seriously dangerous acts. However, as with any other criminal case, a solid sleep apnea case must be provable, and preferably, straightforward to argue.

The Crux of Sleep Apnea Defense is Awareness

Provided you have all the pieces to plead your case, you should be able to put them together to effectively show cause and effect. Overall, though, the sleep disorder is unlikely to make a strong defense in a murder case, as was the case in 1994 when a man claimed his apnea made him mistake his spouse for an intruder and he, therefore, shot her in the head.

That case was unsuccessful, but there are cases where the disorder could actually explain the behavior. Take the case of the man sleeping on a plane, as reported by the New York Post. Apnea is frequently associated with confused awakenings and nightmares. While you’re not likely to perform complex actions like shooting someone in the head, you could reach out for the pillows you would normally sleep with. What’s more, it is a well-proven fact that apnea significantly increases your risk of dozing off behind the wheel and being involved in a crash.

Shouldn’t You Know if You Suffer from Sleep Apnea?

The article in the New York Post made it sound as though it was suspicious that a physical conducted by the employer’s company cleared engineer Thomas Gallagher prior to the fatal crash where he careened into a station at twice the speed limit. Gallagher claims his sleep apnea caused him to fall asleep at the time.

This is not particularly unusual, though. Gallagher, an engineer in the Bronx train derailment, was reportedly diagnosed with low testosterone and hypothyroidism, but they missed his sleep apnea. In fact, doctors often have difficulty identifying apnea. In the past, it was mostly because there were not aware of, and hence not even thinking about, the condition. Recently, though, it is more a product of overlapping symptoms along with the difficulty of diagnosis that is responsible for doctors missing sleep apnea.

You Should Avoid Pleading Sleep Apnea in a Case

While the article in the New York Post makes it sound as though sleep apnea is a sort of “get out of jail free” pass, the truth is that no one really should rely on it as a defense at trial, as it means you have been involved in some type of severe accident. Luckily, treating the sleep disorder can help you to avoid tragic accidents, but diagnosis is your first step in treatment. If you do have symptoms of sleep apnea, talk to your physician or even a sleep dentist about your way forward. Common signs to look out for include:

  • Morning headaches
  • Excessive daytime tiredness
  • Wakening up with a sore throat or dry mouth
  • Observed episodes of breathing cessation when sleeping
  • Insomnia
  • Abrupt awakening and shortness of breath
  • Difficulty controlling high blood pressure

Talk to a Criminal Defense Attorney

If sleep apnea defense is becoming prevalent, we hope the increased attention results in fewer missed diagnoses among, in particular, people who work behind a wheel and others who fall asleep on the job and pose direct harm to the public.

If you have been charged with a criminal act as a result of sleep apnea, call Joffe Law, P.A. today to talk about your legal rights and options and how best to present your case at trial. Book a free consultation today.