Unconsciousness Defense in California

California Law on the Defense of Unconsciousness Caused by Mental Unsoundness: "To constitute a defense, unconsciousness need not rise to the level of coma or inability to walk or perform manual movements; it can exist 'where the subject physically acts but is not, at the time, conscious of acting.'" (People v. Halvorsen (2007) 42 Cal.4th 379, 417 (Halvorsen), quoting Newton, supra, 8 Cal.App.3d at p. 376.) The law is clear that in cases of unconsciousness caused by blackouts, involuntary intoxication, sleepwalking, or even epilepsy, an instruction is warranted where there is substantial evidence. (See People v. Sedeno (1974) 10 Cal.3d 703, 717 "An unconscious act within the contemplation of the Penal Code is one committed by a person who because of somnambulism, a blow on the head, or similar cause is not conscious of acting and whose act therefore cannot be deemed volitional.", overruled on other grounds in People v. Breverman (1998) 19 Cal.4th 142; Cruz, supra, 83 Cal.App.3d at p. 330 unconsciousness instruction should be given where there is evidence of involuntary intoxication; People v. Freeman (1943) 61 Cal.App.2d 110, 118 142 P.2d 435 jury instruction required where the defendant's unconsciousness was due to epilepsy.) But where unconsciousness stems from a mental illness or "unsound mind," what evidence is relevant to an unconsciousness defense has evolved in California case law over the last century, much like the evolution in the fields of psychology and mental illnesses themselves. For the first half of the 20th century, cases limited a defense of unconsciousness to individuals of "sound mind" relying on the theory that the defenses of insanity and unconsciousness were mutually exclusive. (People v. Methever (1901) 132 Cal. 326, 329 (Methever), disapproved on other grounds in People v. Gorshen (1959) 51 Cal.2d 716, 731-734); Hardy, supra, 33 Cal.2d 52.) In 1901, when our Supreme Court considered the issue in Methever, section 26 stated in part: "'All persons are capable of committing crimes except those belonging to the following classes: ... 2. Idiots; 3. Lunatics and insane persons; ... 5. Persons who committed the act charged without being conscious thereof ... .'" (Methever, at p. 329.) The court held that consciousness "does not contemplate cases of unsound mind,--that is, cases of idiots, lunatics, and insane persons,--but, upon the contrary, contemplates only cases of persons of sound mind,--as, for example, somnambulists, or persons suffering with delirium from fever or drugs." (Ibid.) The court reasoned that unconsciousness should not be given a "broader construction" to include people with unsound minds because those individuals, which included idiots, lunatics, and insane persons, were identified separately in section 26 from "'persons who committed the act charged without being conscious thereof.'" (Methever, at p. 329.) In the case of lunatics, idiots, and insane persons, their defense was limited to not guilty by reason of insanity. (Ibid.) More recent California Supreme Court cases appear to approve the defense of unconsciousness based on mental illness or unsound mind, although the court has not expressly disapproved Methever.