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Driving Sick Cat to Vet Not a Defense to Driving Under the Influence Charge

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A Florida man was stopped by police for speeding and swerving across three lanes of traffic. I am sure that the officer went through the normal questions, such as "do you know why I stopped you" and "where are you heading in such a hurry." The man informed the officer that he and his passengers were racing to get a cat to an all-night veterinary clinic for emergency treatment. In talking to the man, the officer detected signs that the driver was under  the influence, and the man was ultimately arrested and charged with DUI.

The man's case proceeded to a jury trial, and the man's DUI defense lawyer requested that the jury be instructed that they could consider the defense of necessity, which is called justification in Pennsylvania. Basically, justification is an argument that a person was justified in violating the law to prevent a greater harm. In the Florida case, judge refused to instruct the jury about the defense, meaning the DUI defendant could not argue that his actions in driving drunk could be excused because he was trying to save the life of a cat. A Florida appellate court agreed with the trial judge's decision and stated that the defense of necessity of justification was only applicable to prevent harm to a person and not an animal.

Justification Defense in a Pennsylvania DUI Case

The justification defense in Pennsylvania is explained at 18 Pa.C.S.A. 503, and basically allows a person to violate the law if the person believes that the action is necessary to avoid a harm or evil to himself or to another. The person must reasonably believe that his or her conduct was necessary to avoid a greater threatened harm or evil, and the harm must be real, not imagined, speculative, or non-imminent. In the case of Commonwealth v. Capitolo, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated a person can assert a justification defense if: (1) the person faced a clear and imminent harm; (2) the person could reasonably expect that his or her actions would be effective in avoiding this greater harm; (3) that there is no legal alternative which will be effective in abating the harm; and (4) that the Legislature has not acted to preclude the defense by a clear and deliberate choice regarding the values at issue.

What would have happened to the man had he been in Pennsylvania driving drunk while seeking to obtain medical assistance for the cat? I suspect that the resolution would be the same. The justification law states that a person must be intended to avoid harm to himself or "another." The issue that a judge would need to consider is whether or not another is limited to people or animals. My belief is that a court would limit applicability of the justification defense to only people. Therefore, had this occurred in Pennsylvania, I believe that the man could not have asserted justification as a defense, and he would likely have been convicted of his third DUI offense within 10 years. In this situation, trying to get the cat medical assistance would have resulted in the man being sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 1 year in jail, $2,500.00 fine, and an 18 month license suspension. As usual, if you have been drinking, it is best to call a cab and avoid a possible conviction of driving under the influence.

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