The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a homeless man might have been legally justified in breaking into private buildings to escape harsh weather conditions. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Magadini.
The facts leading to this case are tragic. The defendant, an unemployed college graduate in his 60’s, has lived in Great Barrington his entire life. He had been living with his parents until 2004, when he moved out to “reorganize.” When he attempted to move back in with his parents, the landlord prohibited him from doing so, which led to the defendant being homeless for large parts of the next decade. He testified that he lives outside for most of the year, but when the weather became unbearable in the winter, he would sometimes seek shelter in privately-owned buildings. In 2007, the defendant attempted to stay at the town’s homeless shelter, but was turned away for reasons that are not clear in the record. As a result, the defendant lived outside in a park or on the outdoor gazebo behind town hall. He testified he had been trying to secure an apartment in Great Barrington for about seven years, but was unable to do so because of the upfront fees that are due upon signing a lease.
The defendant was charged with trespassing at three local commercial properties during the winter months of 2014. One of the properties is a building that houses several restaurants and an enclosed atrium; another property contains retail shops, offices, and apartments; and the third property is an ice cream shop. Each of the properties had previously served the defendant with no-trespass orders that were in effect at the time he was discovered in the buildings. Five incidents occurred in February and March of 2014, when the weather was described as “cold” or “very cold.” The defendant was typically asleep in the buildings, curled up next to heaters when he was found by the police.
At the defendant’s trial, he requested permission from the judge to advance a necessity defense. The defense of necessity essentially states that if the harm of a person’s criminal conduct (in this case, the trespass) is outweighed by the harm that would have resulted from compliance with the law (in this case, the potentially dangerous consequences to the defendant’s health by staying outside in freezing weather), the defendant cannot be convicted of the crime. In order to advance a necessity defense, the defendant must establish: (1) the presence of a clear and imminent danger; (2) a reasonable belief that his action will effectively abate the danger; and (3) there is no legal alternative that will effectively abate the danger. The trial judge refused to give the necessity instruction to the jury, ruling that the defendant had not presented evidence that he had no legal alternatives to trespassing (such as renting a hotel room or reporting to the police station). A jury convicted the defendant and he appealed.
The Supreme Judicial Court concluded the defendant was entitled to a necessity jury instruction and accordingly reversed his trespassing convictions and remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial. The Court began its analysis by holding that a cold night presents a clear and imminent danger to a homeless person. Further, it would have been dangerous for the defendant to have slept outside during these particularly cold nights. The Commonwealth argued the defendant had failed to prove there were not lawful alternatives he could have taken to protect himself from the outdoors. The Commonwealth suggested the defendant could have gone to another town’s shelter (located 20 miles away) or rented an apartment outside of Great Barrington. The Court rejected the Commonwealth’s position, pointing out that the law does not require a defendant to explore all possible alternatives to the criminal act. Additionally, at the time the defendant needed to get inside (in the middle of the night), he would not have been able to pursue the lawful options suggested by the Commonwealth.
The Court pointed out that Massachusetts law does not permit punishment of the homeless simply for being homeless. This is an important decision that will protect a vulnerable class of Massachusetts citizens.