Keys judge falls asleep on the bench in the middle of a trial

 

KeysInfoNet

A Florida Keys judge fell asleep in the middle of a trial June 12 -- just as an attorney only a few feet from the bench was presenting him evidence.

"It's no secret. I have certain health issues," Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Tegan Slaton said Tuesday of the episode.

Slaton blamed a new prescription he received for Ambien to help him battle insomnia, caused by another medication prescribed for gastrointestinal issues.

The judge said he has now stopped taking the Ambien because he'd rather deal with a lack of sleep than the hallucinations the drug caused. He said he used Ambien only twice, on the two nights before the Thursday trial.

"I remember starting the hearing; it was a child-relocation issue. I've done hundreds of those trials," said Slaton, who presides over Family Court. "It's not mundane because it has to do with children."

"About five or 10 minutes into it, I started losing it, hallucinating again," the judge said.

Slaton, running for re-election this year for a second six-year term, described his hallucinations as "Fantasia and the dancing brooms," from the animated 1940 Disney film.

"I wasn't here" at Thursday's trial, he said. "I was out on the bench but I wasn't here."

"I woke up Thursday [after taking Ambien the night before], I felt fine," Slaton said. "I believe I did a hearing at 9 or 10 [a.m.], then I slept for about three hours on my couch. My deputy woke me up around 1, 1:15 [p.m.] for the 1:30 [hearing]. They were concerned."

His judicial aide told him he looked like a "zombie," and that he had "lack of clear speech, lack of jocularity, lack of being able to communicate," Slaton said. "Just overall out of it, by a drug prescribed by my doctor. I took the bench. Granted, it was a mistake."

An observer in the courtroom said Slaton was about 15 minutes into the trial when he was presented a piece of evidence. One bailiff went over and nudged him, then another bailiff nudged him again. At that point, the bailiffs realized Slaton should not be presiding the rest of the day.

About 15 minutes after Slaton left the courtroom, County Judge Wayne Miller took over. "That might be accurate, I just don't know," Slaton said.

"I stopped Ambien that day. I'll exchange loss of sleep for hallucinations any day," he said. "Gonna go get Nyquil, something over the counter."

In November 2012, Slaton took three weeks off to deal with medical issues.

He has drawn two challengers this election. Asked whether voters should factor in his health when deciding for which candidate to vote, he said, "No one is guaranteed a sunset. Talk to people who know me -- any attorney, any law enforcement agent, any of your county commissioners, any of your Mosquito Control commissioners."

"The Ambien issue is never going to happen again," he said.

Read more Florida Keys stories from the Miami Herald

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