You Can Be Excused For Breaking the Law IF…

When the Winter winds blow, and the ground is covered in snow, those of us fortunate enough to have adequate, and even luxurious shelter, often forget the plight of those homeless, still out on the street, fighting the cold. A recent SJC decision brought the issue of homelessness center stage when it ruled on the trespassing verdicts had against a man who trespassed certain properties in order to protect himself from the cold temperatures. Commonwealth v. Magadini, SJC-11874, slip op. (June 23, 2016).

Mr. Magadini was living homeless in Great Barrington. Three establishments in that community had obtained no trespassing orders against Mr. Magadini, and those orders were in effect on the dates Mr. Magadini was found on those properties. In one instance, police found Mr. Magadini curled up against a heater. In another instance, Mr. Magadini was found in a bathroom. At trial, Mr. Magadini attempted to use the defense of necessity to excuse his violation of the no trespassing orders.

The common law defense of necessity “exonerates one who commits a crime under the ‘pressure of circumstances’ if the harm that would have resulted from compliance with the law…exceeds the harm actually resulting from the violation of the law.” Commonwealth v. Kendall, 451 Mass. 10, 13 (2008), quoting Commonwealth v. Hood, 389 Mass. 581, 590 (1983).

For a defendant to be entitled to a necessity defense instruction, he or she must present “some evidence on each of the four underlying conditions of the defense,” Kendall, 451 Mass. at 14: “(1) a clear and imminent danger, not one which is debatable or speculative;” (2) [a reasonable expectation that his or her action] will be effective as the direct cause of abating the danger; (3) there is [no] legal alternative which will be effective in abating the danger; and (4) the Legistlature has not acted to preclude the defense by a clear and deliberate choice regarding the values at issue.” Id. at 13-14, quoting Hood, 389 Mass. at 591.

The Court found that Mr. Magadini had explored other options to escape the cold, but was unable to find a lawful alternative. The Court further ruled that it did not require someone facing a “clear and imminent danger” to conceptualize all possible alternatives. Kendall, 451 Mass. at 16 n.5. Finally, the Court reiterated that the law did not permit punishment of the homeless simply for being homeless. See Commonwealth v. Canadyan, 458 Mass. 574, 579 (2010).

It’s not often that someone charged with a crime is able to employ the defense of necessity with success. We applaud the Court’s reversal of Mr. Magadini’s verdicts, in light of the facts and circumstances, and are grateful to Mr. Magadini for reminding us not only of the plight the homeless face constantly, but also of the fact that sometimes people can be excused for violations of the law.

If you have questions about how these or other legal developments affect you, call the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C.

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