How Would Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Work As A Criminal Defense?

When a person commits a crime, the courts will factor in the individual's mental state when determining guilt. Thus, if you suffer from PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), it may be possible to avoid a conviction or—at least—obtain a lighter sentence if you can prove your condition was partially or fully to blame for your actions. Here are two defenses you may be able to use in your case.


Posttraumatic stress disorder is a protective response to the experience of traumatic events. People who suffer from this condition display a range of symptoms which includes re-experiencing the traumatic event (e.g., flashbacks) and having strong negative reactions to normally non-threatening things that resemble something that happened during the time they were traumatized. A popular example of this is a war veteran mistaking the sound of fireworks for gunfire and diving under a table to escape the perceived danger, for instance.

Because of the person's altered perceptions, someone suffering from PTSD may be able to use the self-defense in their case to avoid being convicted of the crime they're charged with. For instance, a rape survivor gets into a physical altercation with another person who unintentionally bumped into her on a subway. The woman may be able to avoid being convicted if she can prove her condition made her feel she was truly in danger and reacted to that perception as a result.

This defense can be effective, but it can also be challenging to use because you must show you honestly and truly believed you were being attacked in some way. This will typically necessitate testimony from a mental health expert about your condition, and you may be required to undergo an evaluation to determine the extent of your disorder.

Automatism Defense

Another possible defense you can use is automatism. This defense states you were completely unaware of your actions at the time the crime occurred and removes liability for the outcome because you committed the crime unconsciously and involuntarily. For example, a popular medication was causing some patients to drive while sleeping. That is, the person was awake, but they weren't consciously operating the vehicle.

Severe PTSD can cause people to completely zone out and become automatons, acting without thought or impetus. Someone who commits a crime while in this state (e.g., punches someone or discharges a gun) could argue they shouldn't be held liable for the crime since they didn't have any control over their actions.

This is another challenging defense that requires you to show your actions were involuntary and that you did nothing to induce your condition (e.g., took drugs). Again, you will need the assistance of medical experts who can provide insight into how PTSD can induce this type of reaction as well your susceptibility to entering this state.

For more information about these or other defenses you can use in your criminal case, contact a law office like Larson, Latham, Huettl Attorneys.