Daniel Hynes

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Driving while intoxicated in an emergency

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Can an Emergency Situation Ever Necessitate Driving While Intoxicated?

In December of 2013, the American Bar Association Journal reported on a case originating in Canada wherein a judge deemed the defendant not guilty, despite the fact he was driving while intoxicated, because an emergency situation force him to drive an injured acquaintance to the local hospital for emergency medical treatment. After falling down a flight of stairs, his friend had suffered a fairly severe cut on his head. The pair had accidentally locked themselves out of their apartment and were unable to reach their mobile phones. Subsequently, the duo had no other choice but to drive themselves to the nearest hospital.

DWI cases of this unique nature generally fall into one of two categories. The first category is referred to as the justification defense, wherein an emergency situation necessitates driving while under the influence of alcohol, and the second category is called the duress defense, in which a motorist needs to remove themselves from a dangerous situation, such as a person who is threatening their lives.

New Hampshire DWIs: The Justification Defense

New Hampshire state law has established a high burden of proof for motorists who are seeking to use a justification defense for driving while intoxicated. NH state statute RSA 627:3 states:

“Conduct which the actor believes to be necessary to avoid harm to himself or another is justifiable if the desirability and urgency of avoiding harm outweigh, according to ordinary standards of reasonableness, the harm sought to be prevented by the statute defining the offense charged.”

Often referred to as the “competing harms” defense, the case law for this type of defense is quite narrow. In the 1985 case of State v. Fee, a judge ruled that:

“An individual is protected from prosecution under the competing harms defense if he commits a criminal act that was urgently necessary to avoid a clear and imminent danger.”

Per recent rulings by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the purpose of the justification or competing harms defense is not “to justify a defendant’s illegal conduct”, particularly when there are other lawful or unlawful alternatives exist that would cause less harm – if any at all. In a day and age where most individuals carry cell phones with them, it becomes much more difficult to prove a justification defense when most persons could readily dial 911 instead of driving to the hospital while intoxicated.

In the aforementioned Canadian case, the key element to proving the justification defense was the fact that the two young men had locked their cell phones in their apartment. Thus, they were unable to call for help.

New Hampshire DWIs: The Duress Defense

Rather frequently, a defendant will claim that he or she was forced to drive while intoxicated in order to avoid a violent, dangerous situation, like a domestic batterer. In these particular scenarios, New Hampshire does not have a specific statute for providing a defense; however, for these types of extreme situations, there is a “common law” defense. In the 1996 case of State v. Daoud, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that duress “was said to excuse criminal conduct where the actor was under an unlawful threat of imminent death or serious bodily injury, which threat caused the actor to engage in conduct violating the literal terms of the criminal law.”  However, this burden of proof remains very difficult to meet in a court of law.

In a similar fashion, the Supreme Court of the United States has deemed that, regardless of how the duress defense is defined, there remains one constant principle: If a legal, reasonable alternative to violating the law exists and there is a chance to avoid the perceived harm and refuse to engage in a criminal act, then the duress defense will fail in a court of law (United States v. Bailey, 1980).

For most duress defenses, the established legal standards present an almost insurmountable barrier in a court of law. For this reason, most experienced New Hampshire DWI attorneys will opt to select a justification defense for their clients. The L’Huereux case offers a prime example of this.

In 2004, the case of State v. L’Huereux made headlines across New Hampshire.  In this particular case, the defendant drove his vehicle, while under the influence of alcohol, in order to avoid a crazed neighbor who was threatening to shoot those around him with an automatic weapon. The neighbor also threatened to shoot the defendant’s beloved family pet. The NH trial court who heard the case deemed that the defendant had to prove there was no other “lawful” alternative he could have chosen at the time. His defense was disallowed because the court believed, in theory, that he could have sought help from another neighbor.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ultimately reversed the defendant’s criminal conviction, stating that the defendant was only required to prove that he had no other “reasonable” alternative to driving while intoxicated, rather than proving no lawful alternative existed. Since the Supreme Court’s decision, the L’Huereux case has created the guiding foundation for NH DWI attorneys who are seeking to defend their clients under the banner of a duress or justification defense.

Contact An Experienced NH DWI Attorney Today

If you believe that you have wrongfully been charged with a DWI and that either of these defenses could be applicable to your case, please contact our law firm today. Your initial consultation is free, and each of our skilled NH DWI lawyers has years of experience in the arena of DWI law. It is our pledge to work closely with you to obtain the best possible outcome in your case.

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Guest Wednesday, 27 September 2023