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Nelson v. State

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, Dale Nelson (Defendant), procured a dump truck and a front-end loader from a nearby Highway Department Yard for the purpose of freeing his truck from the mud in which it had become stuck. The Defendant feared that his truck might tip over and damage the roof.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. To invoke the defense of necessity, the crime committed must have been done (i) to prevent a significant evil; (ii) there was no legal alternative and (iii) the harm caused was not disproportionate to the harm avoided.

    Facts. The Defendant drove his truck onto a side road off the highway. The truck became bogged down in a marshy area about 250 feet off the highway. The Defendant and his passengers attempted to free the truck, but were unable to do so. An acquaintance then drove by and offered to help, but again, they were unsuccessful. At that point, the acquaintance drove the Defendant down the road to a Highway Department Yard. After waiting several hours for the yard to open, the Defendant and his passengers took a dump truck. While attempting to free the Defendant’s truck with the dump truck, the dump truck also became stuck in the mud. After a while, a man identified only as Curly came upon the scene. His vehicle had also gotten stuck. The group went back to the heavy equipment yard and took a front-end loader. They used this to free the dump truck, used the dump truck to free Curly’s vehicle and returned the dump truck to the heavy equipment yard. When using the front-end loader to free the D
    efendant’s truck, the front-end loader became stuck. The group finally decided to give up and went to sleep. A Highway Department employee awakened them and made a citizen’s arrest. The Defendant caused over $10,000.00 worth of damage to the heavy equipment.

    Issue. Do these facts excuse the Defendant of criminal liability under a theory of necessity?

    Held. No. To invoke the defense of necessity, the crime committed must have been done to prevent (i) a significant evil; (ii) there was no legal alternative and (iii) the harm caused was not disproportionate to the harm avoided. Here, the Defendant did not take the dump truck until twelve hours after his vehicle became stuck, so he cannot argue that a significant evil was being prevented. Further, the Defendant had several legal alternatives, including calling the police, calling a tow truck or flagging down passing motorists. Finally, the damage caused to the dump truck and front-end loader totaled over $10,000.00, which is more than the damage done to the Defendant’s truck.

    Discussion. The defense of necessity can be invoked only in the limited circumstances where a crime must be committed to prevent a greater evil, which must be significant. The crime can only be committed if no legal alternatives exist and the harm avoided is not disproportionate to the harm caused.


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