Automatism (case law)

Automatism (case law)

In criminal law, automatism is a complex and sometimes controversial excuse to liability where physical or environmental factors negate the existence of the "actus reus" (Latin for "guilty act").


La Forest J. in the Canadian Supreme Court case of "R v Parks" (1992) 75 CCC (3d) 287, 302 asserted that automatism is "conceptually a subset of the voluntariness requirement." One of the main rationales of criminal law is to use the threat of punishment as a deterrent to future wrongdoing. But, if an individual is to be deterred, he or she must be acting under voluntary control. If something (or someone) is interfering with this control, automatism may be available as an excuse. In the United States, "Martin v. State" (1944) 31 Ala.App. 334, 17 So.2d 427 holds that people cannot be liable for events occurring involuntarily. The police arrested Martin at home and physically carried him on to the highway, where he then "appeared" to be drunk. It is an offence to be drunk on a public highway, but there were no "actions" committed by Martin. The result would have been different if Martin had complied with an order by the police to go outside because his physical movements would have been under his voluntary control. The question of compulsion and/or duress would potentially negate the "mens rea" element. This emphasises that automatism requires a total not a partial loss of control. In the words of the Queensland Court of Criminal Appeal in "R v Milloy" (1991) 54 A Crim. R. 340, Thomas J. says at 342-343, that for automatism to succeed::impairment of relevant capacities as distinct from total deprivation of these capacities [will not suffice] … it is fundamental to a defence of automatism that the actor has no control over his actions.

Reflex movements

In Australia, "Ryan v The Queen" (1967) 121 CLR 205, the defendant entered a shop with a loaded rifle for a robbery. In a sudden attack, the shop assistant caught the appellant by surprise, causing him by a reflex action to discharge the gun, killing the assistant instantly. The Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) requires that "murder shall be committed where the "act" of the accused … causing the death charged". Barwick CJ. said at 213::That a crime cannot be committed except by an act or omission is axiomatic. It is basic, in my opinion, that the ‘act’ of an accused … must be a ‘willed’, a voluntary act which has caused the death charged. It is the act which must be willed, though its consequences may not be intended.Was the firing of the gun willed so as to constitute an ‘act’ for the purposes of the murder charge? Despite accepting that the actual discharge was involuntary, Barwick CJ. confirmed the murder conviction because ‘the act causing death’ included the general circumstances in which the gun was fired. The judge and jury::could have concluded that the act causing death was the presentation of the cocked, loaded gun with the safety catch unapplied and that its involuntary discharge was a likelihood which ought to have been in the contemplation of the applicant when presenting the gun in the circumstances.In the U.S., the definition of reflex is somewhat broader than in other jurisdictions. In "People v. Decina" (1956) 2 NY2d 13 3, 143 the defendant was an epileptic. While driving his car, he had an epileptic seizure and the car went out of control, killing four people. Decina was convicted of negligent homicide because he had voluntarily driven an automobile without assistance knowing that a seizure was possible, breaching Penal Law 1053 on the negligent operation of a motor vehicle.: Even though a reflex or a convulsion is an excuse, the actor in this instance cannot use this defence because he knowingly undertook the risk of driving while suffering from a disease that is characterised by frequent convulsions, etc. The "actus reus" was established when he began driving.This reasoning matches that in English law where any foreseeable loss of control is excluded from automatism. To hold otherwise would be to excuse any driver or other person engaged in an activity where public safety is an issue, from the consequences of a loss of control that occurred after losing consciousness. Only sudden and unexpected health problems avoid culpability. In Scots law, "Cardle v Mulrainey" (1992) SCCR 658 applies the general requirement for cases involving a defence based on insanity or a comparable state, that there must be a total alienation of reason leading to a loss of self-control, to a case in which the accused claimed that he had involuntarily consumed a drug which had the effect that he knew what he was doing but was unable to refrain from acting (at 668)::Where, as in the present case, the accused knew what he was doing and was aware of the nature and quality of his acts and that what he was doing was wrong, he cannot be said to be suffering from the total alienation of reason in regard to the crime with which he is charged which the defence requires. The sheriff found in finding that the respondent's ability to reason the consequences of his actions to himself was affected by his ingestion of the drug. The finding narrates that he was unable to take account in his actions of the fact that they were criminal in character and to refrain for them. But this inability to exert self-control, which the sheriff has described as an inability to complete the reasoning process, must be distinguished from the essential requirement that there should be total alienation of the accused's mental faculties of reasoning and of understanding what he is doing.


Australian Model Criminal Code Committee state the law as follows (at 14-15)::At the minimum there needs to be some operation of the will before a physical movement is described as an act. The physical movements of a person who is asleep, for example, probably should not be regarded as acts at all, and certainly should not be regarded as acts for the purposes of criminal responsibility. These propositions are embodied in the rule that people are not held responsible for involuntary ‘acts’, that is, physical movements which occur without there being any will to perform that act. This situation is usually referred to as automatism.In the U.S. "People v Huey Newton" (1970) 8 CA3d 359 holds that unconsciousness, when not self-induced say, as by voluntary intoxication, is a complete defence to a criminal act even though the defendant's acts seem very goal-oriented. Newton did not have the ability to monitor himself because of trauma. The medical evidence was that " [a] gunshot wound which penetrates in a body cavity, the abdominal cavity or the thoracic cavity is very likely to produce a profound reflex shock reaction, that is quite different from a gunshot wound which penetrates only skin and muscle and it is not at all uncommon for a person shot in the abdomen to lose consciousness and go into this reflex shock condition for short periods of time up to half an hour or so." But the reflexive activity or unconsciousness need not cause physical collapse: it can exist where the subject physically acts in fact, but is not at the time conscious of acting (cf some European continental jurisdictions classify conduct resulting from automatism under the rubric of unconsciousness). In "R. v. Cogdon "(1950) unreported but noted in Morris, "Somnambulistic Homicide: Ghosts, Spiders and North Koreans" (1951) 5 "Res Judicatae" 29, the defendant struck her daughter on the head with an axe while sleepwalking and dreaming about North Koreans. Her movements were not voluntary, so she was acquitted. This interpretation of automatism is consistent with Lord Denning's "dictum" in "Bratty v Attorney-General for Northern Ireland" (1963) AC 386, at 409::No act is punishable if it is done involuntarily: and an involuntary act in this context – some people nowadays prefer to speak of it as ‘automatism’ – means an act which is done by the muscles without any control by the mind, such as a spasm, a reflex action or a convulsion; or an act done by a person who is not conscious of what he is doing, such as an act done whilst suffering from a concussion or whilst sleepwalkingDenning provides two classes of cases which he regards as being automatistic:
#an absence of any control of the mind over actions. This category covers actors who may have been conscious of what they were doing but who could not affect their actions, e.g. in driving cases where a mechanical failure or road conditions deprive the driver of control (e.g. the Canadian case of "R v Lucki" (1955) 17 W.W. R. 446 (Sask. Pol. Ct.)).
#a lack of consciousness.But situations involving hypnotism, concussion, and sleepwalking may involve apparently deliberate and purposeful conduct. For example, the English case of "R v T" (1990) Crim. LR 256 offered clinical evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder after a rape three days earlier to explain an armed robbery which involved her stabbing her victim and reaching into the victim’s car to take her bag. Such a disorder is closely similar in effect to that of concussion caused by a physical blow. In the Canadian case of "R v Rabey" (1981) 54 CCC (2d) 1, 15 a young student was rejected by his great love. He responded by hitting her on the head and choking her. He claimed to have little recollection of the event and a psychiatrist testified that his mind dissociated from his body, explaining that a person in this kind of state might be capable of performing physical acts without awareness of such actions. Dissociation can be a part of a mental disorder like in multiple personalitydisorder. As a result, the defence of automatism may be available for a mentally impaired defendant. As for sleepwalking itself, the Canadian case of "R v Parks" (1992) 75 CCC (3d) 287 exemplifies a certain judicial willingness to regard a sleepwalker as behaving as an automaton even though he had performed apparently goal-directed acts. The accused fell asleep in his living room. A few hours later he got up and drove 23 kilometres to his in-laws' home. Still asleep, he entered the house, found a knife in the kitchen and went to the bedroom where his in-laws were sleeping. Hestrangled and cut his father in-law, who survived the attack. The mother in-law died from the repeated stab wounds and the brutal beating. The medical experts unanimously agreed that the accused was sleepwalking and that a person in this state of mind cannot perform voluntary acts. TheSupreme Court agreed and held that sleepwalking can negate the voluntary ingredient of the "actus reus". The point made in these cases is that the key component of the two categories of cases identified by Lord Denning in "Bratty" is an accused’s inability to control their behaviour and not the way in which loss or impairment of the conscious or deliberative functions of the mind arises. Similarly, under the Swedish Penal Code, acts during sleep and unconsciousness, reflex movements, spasms and convulsions, as well as acts performed under physical force or hypnosis are generally not punishable. Moreover, omissions caused by sleep, weakness, physical numbness or anaesthesia are generally not blameworthy. The issue is whether the accused had the ability to control the behaviour, including taking early precautions to avoid loss of control. But, in English law, the ruling in "R v Sullivan" (1984) AC 156 held that, for the purposes of the M'Naghten Rules, a disease of the mind need have no permanence, leading many academics to suggest that sleepwalkers might well be found to be suffering from a disease of the mind with internal causes unless there was clear evidence of an external causal factor. In "R v Burgess" (1991) 2 WLR 1206 the Court of Appeal ruled that the defendant who wounded a woman by hitting her with a video recorder while sleepwalking, was insane under the M'Naghten Rules. Lord Lane said, "We accept that sleep is a normal condition, but the evidence in the instant case indicates that sleepwalking, and particularly violence in sleep, is not normal."

Overall, this emphasis on control rather than consciousness is supported by clinical science: see Hughlings Jackson on "Automatism as Disinhibition" (1998) 6 Journal of Law and Medicine 73, and Michael Coles who says at 37::...on the basis of the available knowledge of human behaviour, it may be suggested that many of the crimes the courts have decided were committed in an automatistic state – that is, in the absence of conscious, volitional control, or while the mind was a total blank – actually may have occurred in a state of diminished consciousness, with the diminished consciousness resulting in the diminished conscious control of behaviour. In other words, the individual becomes disinhibited, and behaviour that the individual would otherwise be able to [contain] gains expression.

Automatism and insanity

For a discussion of the relationship between automatism and insanity and "internal" and "external" factors, see M'Naghten Rules.

Automatism and drunkenness

In general terms, a loss of control is foreseeable after voluntarily consuming alcohol or drugs, so automatism is excluded unless it has induced a more permanent disease such as delirium tremens. Since losses of control are foreseeable if such a disability arises, the M'Naghten Rules will be applicable as an internal cause. As to whether involuntary drunkenness can be a defence, (see drunkenness).

Automatism and provocation

To constitute a provocation, there must be a sudden and unexpected loss of control as a result of things said or done but the accused is still capable of activity which is sufficiently directed to cause the death of another. Hence, there is insufficient loss of control to constitute automatism e.g. as in the Canadian case of "Bert Thomas Stone v R" (1999) []


*Beran, Roy. "Automatism: Comparison of Common Law and Civil Law Approaches – A Search for the Optimal", (2002) 10 Journal of Law and Medicine, 61.
*Coles, Michael. "Scientific Support for the Legal Concept of Automatism", (2000) 7 Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 33.
*Glass, H. H., "Hypnosis and the Law", (1971) 3 Australian Journal of Forensic Science, 162-167
*Gould, Patricia E., "Automatism: The Unconsciousness Defence to a Criminal Action", (1978) 15 San Diego Law Review, 839-858.
*Harding, Richard W., "Sane and Insane Automatism in Australia: Some Dilemmas, Developments and Suggested Reforms", (1981) 4 International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 73-87.
*Horder, Jeremy, "Pleading Involuntary Lack of Capacity", (1993) 52(2) Cambridge Law Journal, 298-318.
*Kado, Ayako & Fisher, Larry R. "Sleepwalkingndash Nightmare for the courts" []
*Martin, Lawrence, "Can sleepwalking be a murder defense?" []
*Rosengren, Caroline, "Mad or Bad: Criminal Responsibility and Mental Disorder" (2004) University of Lund Master Thesis [$File/exam.pdf?OpenElement]
*Schopp, Robert F., "Automatism, insanity, and the psychology of criminal responsibility. A philosophical inquiry", Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-521-40150-X
*Tolmie, Julia, "Alcoholism and Criminal Liability", (2001) 64(5) Modern Law Review, 688-709
*Yeo, Stanley, "Situating Automatism in the Penal Codes of Malaysia and Singapore", LawAsia Journal 2003/2004 []

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