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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Schoon - 939 F.2d 826 (9th Cir. 1991)


A district court may preclude a necessity defense where the evidence, as described in the defendant's offer of proof, is insufficient as a matter of law to support the proffered defense. To invoke the necessity defense, therefore, the defendants colorably must have shown that (1) they were faced with a choice of evils and chose the lesser evil, (2) they acted to prevent imminent harm, (3) they reasonably anticipated a direct causal relationship between their conduct and the harm to be averted, and (4) they had no legal alternatives to violating the law. An appellate court reviews de novo the district court's decision to bar a necessity defense.


Defendants were arrested after gaining admittance to an Internal Revenue Service office and splashing simulated blood on the counters, walls, and carpeting in protest over United States involvement in El Salvador. A federal police officer ordered the group to disperse, and when defendants refused, they were arrested. Defendants were convicted of obstructing activities of the Internal Revenue Service and failing to comply with an order of a federal police officer. On appeal, defendants argued that the trial court should not have excluded their defense of necessity.


Was the defense of necessity available to the defendants? 




The court affirmed the conviction, holding that the necessity defense was not applicable to cases involving indirect civil disobedience. The court held that the law could not function if people were allowed to rely on their subjective judgments in determining which harms justified the taking of criminal actions. Congress could change its mind at any time in response to civil protect, so petitioning Congress was always an adequate legal alternative and there was never an absence of legal alternatives in cases where congressional action was the protest's aim.

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