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United States v. Schoon

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Brief Fact Summary. The Defendants, Gregory Schoon, Raymond Kennon, Jr., and Patricia Manning (Defendants), were convicted of obstructing activities of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and failing to comply with an order of a federal police officer. They unsuccessfully attempted a necessity defense claiming their protests were necessary to avoid further bloodshed in El Salvador due to America’s involvement there.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The necessity defense is inapplicable to a case involving indirect civil disobedience.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

To establish this defense, a defendant must show:(1) that defendant was under an unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of such a nature as to induce a well-grounded apprehension of death or serious bodily injury; (2) that defendant had not recklessly or negligently placed himself in a situation in which it was probable that he would be forced to choose the criminal conduct; (3) that defendant had no reasonable, legal alternative to violating the law, a chance both to refuse to do the criminal act and also to avoid the threatened harm; and (4) that a direct causal relationship may be reasonably anticipated between the criminal action taken and the avoidance of the threatened harm.

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Facts. The Defendants, among others, entered the IRS office in Tucson, AZ, where they chanted, “keep America’s tax dollars out of El Salvador,” splashed fake blood all over the office, and generally obstructed operations. A federal police officer ordered the group to disperse or face arrest and when they did not disperse, the Defendants were arrested.

Issue. Is the necessity defense precluded as a matter of law in cases involving indirect civil disobedience?

Held. Yes. The necessity defense requires a showing that (1) the defendants were faced with a choice of evils and chose the least evil choice; (2) the defendants acted to prevent imminent harm; (3) the defendants reasonably anticipated a direct causal relationship between their conduct and the harm to be averted and (4) the defendants had no legal alternatives to violating the law. The Defendants’ actions here fell well short of that required to prove a necessity defense. In fact, the Defendants could prove none of these elements.

Concurrence. The necessity defense should not be grounded on utilitarian theory alone, but rather on a concept of what is right and proper conduct under the circumstances.

Discussion. The defense of necessity requires (1) a balance of harms; (2) a causal relationship between criminal conduct and harm to be averted and (3) a lack of legal alternatives.

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