In these times of shelter-in-place and quarantine, you might find yourself in a situation where you face an emergency, but you have to commit a crime or traffic violation to address it. For example, this happens for people who have an expired or suspended license, but are faced with the need to get an incapacitated person to a hospital or other important place. Of course, you should always follow the laws when you can, but what if you can’t? The law allows for a little bit of leeway here.
Where a person believes the commission of a crime or traffic violation is necessary to avoid some harm (or harm to another), and the “desirablility and urgency of avoiding such harm” outweighs the harm that the legal prohibition is designed to prevent, that person is “justified” in breaking the law. In other words, if you see someone having a heart attack, but helping that person would require you to break a window, you are justified in breaking the window. In New Hampshire, we call this the “competing harms” or “choice of evils” defense. Breaking someone’s window is bad; it’s against the law. You can be charged with “criminal mischief” if you do that. But is it worse than letting someone lie on the floor and suffer? Of course not. So we allow people to have that protection—but beware that a judge might not agree with your judgement about which “evil” is worse than the other.
Last September, the Supreme Court issued an order tp help us understand how that applies to driving offenses. A man was asking the Supreme Court to overturn a guilty verdict after a trial where he brought this defense. The man was caught driving 99 MPH on a highway, which is too fast no matter what road you’re on. The officer asked why he was going so fast. The man explained that his support dog was suffering from torsion, which is a life-threatening medical emergency. The officer apparently felt for the man because he took the man and his dog in the cruiser to go straight to a vet hospital. He didn’t feel that bad, however, because he then took the man to the police station to charge him with reckless driving and driving on a suspended license.
The man raised the competing harms defense. Essentially, he put on a case claiming that he had two choices: pose a risk to the motoring public by driving recklessly and with a suspended license, or watch his dog die in from of him. The judge agreed with the defense, but only as it related to his charge of driving on a suspended license. The Supreme Court upheld this decision. It had no problem with the idea that the trial judge thought that saving a dog’s life was enough justification to let an unlicensed driver on the road. It had a big problem, however, with the fact that the person drove extremely fast and in a manner that endangered other people. Putting his life and the lives of other at such a great risk was not worth saving the dog over.
If you have been charged with a crime or traffic offense, it’s worth talking to an experienced lawyer to see what defenses might be available to you. You can start by calling us at Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C., 1-800-240-1988 or fill out our online contact form.