In certain, limited circumstances, the harm caused by an individual’s criminal conduct could be outweighed by the harm that would come with compliance with the law. In such circumstances, which are rare, the necessity defense might be available to the criminal defendant.
What is the Necessity Defense?
In Massachusetts, criminal defendants may raise a defense of necessity, i.e., that their criminal conduct was necessitated by the circumstances that they faced at the time of the crime. To think of this another way, the defense basically asserts that not breaking the law would have had worse consequences than complying with the law. If the judge or jury believes that the necessity defense is proper, then the defendant cannot be charged with the crime.
A necessity defense requires that the defendant demonstrates that:
- The criminal defendant was in clear and imminent danger,
- The criminal defendant has a reasonable belief that his or her criminal conduct would effectively abate the danger that he or she is faced with, and
- No legal alternative exists at the time of the situation that could effectively abate the danger that the defendant was faced with.
Homeless in Winter Example
The necessity defense is hard to understand because so few situations warrant or justify its use to defend against criminal charges. But a good example of when the necessity defense should be raised can be found in the facts that lead up to the Commonwealth v. Magadini case, which went before the Massachusetts Supreme Court in June of 2016. In the Magadini case, the defendant became homeless, and during the cold winter months the defendant was arrested for trespassing on private property. The defendant was only trespassing so that he could get some sleep near a heater, as he tried to stay alive and warm during the unusually cold winter in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
While in court, the defendant asked to raise the necessity defense, arguing that is trespassing criminal conduct was necessitated by the unusually cold weather. If he did not trespass so that he could get warm, he could have died due to the cold. The harm that the defendant would have suffered (i.e., exposure to extreme cold, and possibly death) by complying with the law outweighed the harm of committing a trespass, and thus the defendant should be able to assert the necessity defense against his trespassing charges.
The Massachusetts High Court agreed that the defendant should be allowed to raise this defense and that the jury should receive jury instructions as to the necessity defense.
Contact a Massachusetts DUI Criminal Defense Attorney
There are some situations in which a criminal defendant’s actions may have been necessitated by circumstance, and he or she should not be charged with a crime. The circumstances need to be just right in order to successfully raise the necessity defense. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will be able to help you determine which defenses are best for you, and whether the necessity defense applies to your specific situation.