I recently posted an article about a Florida man who argued that he should be found not guilty of driving under the influence because he had to get behind the wheel to drive a cat to an emergency veterinary clinic. Over the years, people have asked me as a Penn State DUI lawyer if they can assert a justification defense. The justification defense in Pennsylvania basically allows a person to violate the law if the person believes that the action is immediately necessary to avoid a harm or evil to himself or to another. The most common example of justification is self-defense in assault cases.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court discussed the defense of justification in the case of Commonwealth v. Capitolo and stated a person can use the 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.
Justified in Driving Drunk to Avoid Bodily Harm?
In 2010, in the case of Commonwealth v. Clouser, the Pennsylvania Superior Court had to consider whether or not a person charged with driving under the influence could use the defense of justification. In the case, the defendant had drinks at a bar, and the man and his girlfriend became involved in a verbal and physical dispute with other bar patrons. According to the man, he was struck in the head with an object, so he made the decision to drive from the scene to escape any additional injuries. The man drove for 4.8 miles before he got the vehicle stuck in a ditch. Police arrived and transported both the man and the girlfriend to the hospital for medical treatment. The man's alcohol concentration was found to be .19%, so he was charged with Pennsylvania charge of Driving Under the Influence.
At trial, the judge refused to give the jury a justification jury instruction, which means that the defense could not argue for and jury could not consider that the man's actions in driving away from the bar drunk were justified to avoid additional physical harm. The trial judge felt that the man had other options that he could have used to avoid the harm without resorting to driving under the influence. The defendant was convicted and filed an appeal with the Superior Court.
The Superior Court felt that the trial judge was wrong in stating that the man had other viable options to avoid the harm without driving drunk. The Court felt that the man had presented sufficient evidence of a clear and imminent harm that could only reasonably be avoided by driving from the scene. While the Superior Court felt that the man was initially justified in driving away, the Court felt that driving for approximately 5 miles was too far as it was not the minimum action necessary to avoid the danger. Had the man driven a short distance and then stopped, he probably could have asserted justification as a defense in this Pennsylvania DUI case.