Tags: Criminal law, Necessity defense
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This legal case involves three defendants who were convicted for obstructing the activities of the Internal Revenue Service Office in Tucson, Arizona, and failing to comply with an order of a federal police officer during their protest against United States involvement in El Salvador. The appellants claimed a necessity defense, which was denied by the district court. The court holds that the necessity defense is inapplicable in cases like this. The appellants were arrested after obstructing the office's operation and refusing to disperse despite orders from a federal police officer. The sole issue on appeal is whether the court's exclusion of the necessity defense was proper. To invoke the necessity defense, the defendants must show that they were faced with a choice of evils and chose the lesser evil, acted to prevent imminent harm, reasonably anticipated a direct causal relationship between their conduct and the harm to be averted, and had no legal alternatives to violating the law. The court reviews the district court's decision to bar a necessity defense de novo. The district court rejected the necessity defense because the defendants failed to meet all four elements required for the defense. The court found that the harm was not immediate, the actions taken would not have prevented the harm, and legal alternatives were available. The court concluded that the necessity defense is not applicable to cases involving indirect civil disobedience. The necessity defense justifies criminal acts taken to avert a greater harm, maximizing social welfare by allowing a crime to be committed where the social benefits of the crime outweigh the social costs of failing to commit the crime.
The necessity defense allows individuals to act as individual legislatures, but strict requirements contain its exercise to prevent nonbeneficial criminal conduct. The defense cannot be used in cases of indirect civil disobedience as the harm targeted is the existence of the law or policy, which cannot constitute a legally cognizable harm. Legal alternatives must be pursued instead of illegal action, and legal alternatives will never be exhausted in cases of indirect civil disobedience because the harm can always be mitigated by congressional action. The defense requires the absence of any legal alternative that could reasonably be expected to abate an imminent evil. Indirect civil disobedience cannot be justified by the necessity defense because legal alternatives, such as petitioning Congress, are always available and reasonable. A per se rule of exclusion should be applied to these cases because the criminal acts themselves do not maximize social good and the doctrine's historic limitations prevent its application in indirect protests of congressional policies.
The lower court's ruling against using the necessity defense for illegal acts during political protests is upheld. A concurring judge agrees but questions the defense's reliance on utilitarian theory. Those considering using the defense should carefully consider the majority's opinion.
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