|Activist rescuing pigs. Photo courtesy DxE.|
The necessity defense is recognized in common law as a situation in which a person violates the law in order to prevent or mitigate harm. One way to understand the principle behind necessity is to think of a car swerving off the road to avoid an accident and then running into someone’s fence. Ordinarily, the driver would be responsible for the damage to property, but because she caused it in order to avoid a greater harm, we do not hold her responsible. Necessity belongs to a family of affirmative defenses known as “justifications”: rather than merely excusing an individual for a particular set of circumstances that absolve them of responsibility (because they are insane, too young, or intoxicated, for example), a justification applies more universally, and might be regarded as a legal statement that, when faced with these circumstances, the law wants people to choose the lesser harm.
As Jenni James explains in this excellent article, the necessity defense can be elusive, because over the years judges have narrowed its scope. Most states do not even have it codified into their penal code: for example, to find California’s necessity defense, you’d have to recur to the California jury instructions. The elements vary somewhat across jurisdictions, but for the most part they conform to some general principles:
- Serious harm (in CA, defendants have to prove that they acted “in an emergency to prevent a signiﬁcant bodily harm or evil to (himself/herself/ [or] someone else)”
- No adequate legal alternative.
- Proportionality between the harm committed and the harm avoided ( in CA, “[t]he defendant’s acts did not create a greater danger than the one avoided). In other words, the opposite of what the Cowboy Fireman did in this terrific Faith Petric song.
- A genuine, subjective belief that the act was necessary to prevent the threatened harm or evil.
- Objective support for the subjective belief: In other words, that “a reasonable person would also have believed that the act was necessary under the circumstances.
- Lack of culpability on the part of the defendant for the emergency in the first place (CA law requires that the defendant “did not substantially contribute to the emergency.”)
As James argues in her article, the ability to even present the necessity defense in court depends on judicial discretion (typically exercised in the context of a motion in limine to prevent the presentation of the defense.) In one decision, U.S. v. Schoon, the Ninth Circuit held that the necessity defense will only be available to activists who engage in “direct civil disobedience”–that is, directly challenging the rules they protest–and not “indirect civil disobedience” activists, who violate a law that is “not, in itself, the object of protest.” As James explains, open rescuers engage in both forms of civil disobedience, because they challenge both the exploitation and cruelty of the animal industry (indirect) AND ag-gag laws (direct.) But the upshot of the decision was that protesters, by definition, were to be denied the necessity defense–even though lower courts sill allow it on occasion. And of course, as James points out, the necessity defense can be a poor fit for these premeditated and planned operations, because by its very nature it is designed to address emergencies.
This means that activists encounter some serious hurdles in presenting the defense. The first and foremost issue that might come up is the big question whether the suffering of animals constitutes “serious harm,” and also, a harm that is proportional to the harm they cause when they enter the facility or remove an animal. Part of this debate is factual: the activists would have to prove the imminent harm to the animals, and to come up with a way to show that this harm is equal or greater to the harm that their actions caused to the farmers. Video evidence showing sick or dying animals might prove their marginal monetary worth to the farmers as well as the harm and suffering to them (but requires, of course, that activists engage with the legal framework that sees animals as property.) As to how harm and suffering are to be measured, one thing I plan to look at is the extent to which potential jurors are open to considering evidence of animal emotions and theories of animal personhood.
I’m reading Frans de Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug, whose point of departure is the animal behaviorist’s skepticism about proof. De Waal argues that we can, and should, be able to assess and measure animal emotions, which human and nonhuman animals can both exhibit and control. The examples he provides show nonhuman animals as imbued with a sophisticated understanding of their social world, as well as a sense of justice, as well as fairness. Larry Carbone’s interesting What Animals Want, which is set at a lab, raises important questions about assessing physical suffering of animals held in labs for experimentation. My hope is to expand my reading on animal emotion, feelings, and suffering, and think about which theory of animal agency would be persuasive to a jury.
Then, there are questions about the subjective and objective intents of the activists, as well as the extent to which they recurred to legal means before taking illegal action (reports to the police, etc.) – this element can be difficult to handle, because often one can know of the specific harms that are occurring only via illegal means. In short, as James argues in her article, “[j]udges seldom have to overtly pit commercial privacy interests against an animal’s right not to suffer. Instead, judges often assume the practice causing the animal’s suffering was legal and thus not harmful for purposes of the necessity defense balancing of harms. Rescuers who wish to remove animals from industrial facilities, then, should be careful to select only animals suffering from clearly illegal activity, which, ideally, should also be documented. However, to avoid the appearance of vigilantism, rescuers might consider using this documentation sparingly and perhaps even sharing it with law enforcement promptly.”
But that raises other questions, which are a proper subject for ethnographic research: How do animal rights activists relate to the law, and to the prospect of criminal justice in their activities? More on that in Part III.