Earlier today a random question popped into my head, what takes precedence, law or first aid?

So, my thought was brought on by the teacher going over basic first aid. If someone has heat stroke, get them to a cool area. So, let's say you're in your backyard and your friend has heatstroke, your house is without air conditioning, while illegal, would it be justified to break into your neighbors house, who has air conditioning? Or maybe neither of you have a phone and you need to dial 911? Maybe they have a first aid kit that you need?

In other words, would breaking and entering be justified during a life threatening situation?

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    The details may vary by jurisdiction, but look up "necessity defense". Dec 10, 2020 at 21:16
  • see my answer on that defense, @nate Dec 10, 2020 at 22:11

2 Answers 2


There is a Defense of "Necessity" which would apply in such cases, even if the law had no intent element.. This essentially allows as a defense to an accusation of crime that the actions were essential to prevent harm. Dee, for example Justia's page on The Criminal Defense of Necessity. There it is said:

The defense of necessity may apply when an individual commits a criminal act during an emergency situation in order to prevent a greater harm from happening. In such circumstances, our legal system typically excuses the individual’s criminal act because it was justified, or finds that no criminal act has occurred. Although necessity may seem like a defense that would be commonly invoked by defendants seeking to avoid criminal charges, its application is limited by several important requirements:

  • The defendant must reasonably have believed that there was an actual and specific threat that required immediate action
  • The defendant must have had no realistic alternative to completing the criminal act
  • The harm caused by the criminal act must not be greater than the harm avoided
  • The defendant did not himself contribute to or cause the threat

Only if all of these requirements are met, will the defense of necessity be applicable. It is also important to note that in some jurisdictions, necessity is never a defense to the killing of another individual, no matter what threat they may present.

The Justia page goes on to describe the elements of the defense in detail. See also The Wikipedia artifcel which makes many of the same points.

Necessity is a broader defense than the intent or willfulness requirements of particular laws, because it applied even when the law does nor contain such an element. However, it has its own strict limits, described above. The exact scope of this defense differs in different jurisdictions.


would breaking and entering be justified during a life threatening situation?

Yes. Penal statutes typically require elements such as "maliciously", "with intent to cause harm", or "without reasonable justification". For instance, see MCL 750.110a(2). The type of situations you describe is devoid of such elements.

Even where language of a penal statute is unclear as to its legislative intent, considerations of public policy indicate that saving someone's life takes priority over others' right to the quiet enjoyment of their property.

  • If someone's dying of starvation, would they be justified to break into a house and grab food? The gist of the question is where the dividing line lies.
    – Greendrake
    Dec 10, 2020 at 20:47
  • @Greendrake Absolutely. Very often the law does not provide (and cannot provide) clear-cut limits. Hence the criterion of "reasonable [xyz]", which will highly depend on the particular, factual details of each case. At most, the owner might be entitled to compensation, but that is a civil (not criminal) matter. Dec 10, 2020 at 20:54
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    @Greendrake, that depends on circumstances. If you're in a city and the choice is between breaking into someone's house or visiting an appropriate charitable organization, it wouldn't be justified. If you're stranded in the wilderness and the choice is between breaking into someone's vacation cabin or starving to death, it would be justified.
    – Mark
    Dec 11, 2020 at 2:51
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    @Greendrake And that question is why we have human judges and juries. Dec 11, 2020 at 10:45

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