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The Necessity Defense

The necessity defense - choosing the lesser evil: a justification defense

The necessity defense – choosing the lesser evil: a justification defense

Sometimes we call the necessity defense, “the Choice of Evils Defense.”

What is the necessity defense?  It is a common law defense, springing from the moral hearts of the people over thousands of years.  The courts accepted it, and incorporated it into the common law.

The People believe in the defense because we see no justice in convicting a person of a crime who was doing the right thing at the time.

To convict a person of a crime based upon a technicality, or the letter of the law, can work a grave injustice.  This defense sounds in the fundamental human right to a real, unmanaged, jury trial.

The common law is available to all in Minnesota.  The legislature and the courts, however, can modify it through legislation and court decisions.  and of course, so can the jury, given the chance.

There is no Minnesota Statute that generally addresses the defense of necessity.  There is at least one Minnesota Statute, however, that addresses it in a specific situation.

What are the elements of the necessity defense?

As the Minnesota Court of Appeals summarized:

A necessity defense defeats a criminal charge

if the harm that would have resulted from compliance with the law would have significantly exceeded the harm actually resulting from the defendant’s breach of the law.

United States v. Seward, 687 F.2d 1270, 1275 (10th Cir.1982) (quoting State v. Marley, 54 Haw. 450, 509 P.2d 1095 (1973)), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1147, 103 S.Ct. 789, 74 L.Ed.2d 995 (1983). In addition, the defense exists only if (1) there is no legal alternative to breaking the law, (2) the harm to be prevented is imminent, and (3) there is a direct, causal connection between breaking the law and preventing the harm.

State v. Rein, 477 N.W.2d 716 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

Is necessity an affirmative defense?

Courts may require the defense attorney to produce some evidence to support the defense at trial, before instructing the jury on the defense. State v. Brodie, 532 N.W.2d 557 (Minn. 1995) (A defendant seeking a necessity defense instruction has the burden of making a prima facie showing of necessity.)  Minnesota appellate courts have disagreed about whether the prosecution has the ultimate burden of persuasion on the defense.  See, State v. Hage, 595 N.W.2d 200 (Minn. Sup. Ct. 1999).

Types of cases

Minnesota Statutes § 169A.53, subd. 3(b)(11) in 2017 makes the necessity defense available in cases involving judicial review of DWI administrative driver’s license revocations.

Examples of cases where the necessity defense has been raised include protester cases, emergencies, domestic violence situations, criminal gun charges, and medical marijuana necessity.

Litmus test for democracy and jury rights

Remember the Amsterdam family that hid the Jewish family of Anne Frank from the Nazi police in 1943?  Were they guilty of a crime, when lying to the murderers at the door?  If so, should we then accept a necessity defense?  What if a judge would not allow the jury to even consider a choice of evils defense?   Would that “jury trial” be a sham?

Justification defense

Necessity has been characterized as, not only an affirmative defense, but also a justification defense – where the prosecution has met its burden of evidence proving intent to do the prohibited act, but there is evidence that the accused person acted justly, to avoid an even greater evil harm than the law violated.

There can be cases, however, of justification in situations where intent to do the prohibited act is negated.  In such a case, the burden of persuasion must be on the prosecution to avoid an unconstitutional shifting of the burden of proof to the defense.

Jury Rights – A Call to Justice

Right to an Attorney, Thomas Gallagher defends

Right to an Attorney: Thomas Gallagher defends

This defense, and a review of the appellate cases, demonstrate the conflict between the individual human right to a real jury trial, on the one hand; and on the other hand, a manipulated, legally managed process that results in a vestigial “jury trial” in name only.

To the extent that democracy and the People’s justice matter, lawyers and judges should unleash juries to truly hear the defense of the accused and decide cases justly.

Question?  You can call Minneapolis Defense Attorney Thomas Gallagher at 612 333-1500