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As I understand it in the USA if I, a normal citizen, walking by a stranger's home and witness them suddenly get electrocuted or otherwise seriously harmed I'm allowed to enter their home to try to render aid, even uninvited, since I have a reasonable belief they would prefer me to come into their home under those circumstances.

I'm wondering where the line is drawn for that. I presumably can't barge into a stranger's home because it looks like they are having a bad hair job and I need to give them a perm this instant. How serious would the need have to be before I could justify entering their home? If I see someone appearing to be about to commit suicide can I reasonably barge in to try to stop them for example, even though presumably at that moment they did want privacy to continue following through with their suicide?

On a related note when, if ever, would I be authorized to break into a home that was otherwise locked to render aid?

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3 Answers 3

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What you are describing seems to raise the defense of necessity. I cannot pinpoint the line for you or tell you whether any particular action would lie on one side or the other, but I can describe the test.

In Maryland, there are "five elements necessary to consider before applying the defense of necessity" (Marquardt v. State, 164 Md. App. 95, 135-36 (2005), citing Sigma Reproductive Health Center v. State, 297 Md. 660, 677-79 (1983)):

  1. The harm avoided — this need not be physical harm but also may be harm to property as, for instance, where a firefighter destroys some property to prevent the spread of fire which threatens to consume other property of greater value.

  2. The harm done — this is not limited to any particular type of harm but includes intentional homicide as well as intentional battery or property damage. An illustration is supplied:

    `[A]s where A, driving a car, suddenly finds himself in a predicament where he must either run down B or hit C's house and he reasonably chooses the latter, unfortunately killing two people in the house who by bad luck happened to be just at that place inside the house where A's car struck — it is the harm-reasonably-expected, rather than the harm-actually-caused, which governs.'

  3. Intention to avoid harm — to have the defense of necessity, the defendant must have acted with the intention of avoiding the greater harm. Actual necessity, without the intention, is not enough. However, an honest and reasonable belief in the necessity of his action is all that is required.

  4. The relative value of the harm avoided and the harm done. The defendant's belief as to the relative harmfulness of the harm avoided and the harm done does not control. It is for the court, not the defendant, to weigh the relative harmfulness of the two alternatives. To allow the defense the court must conclude that the harm done by the defendant in choosing the one alternative was less than the harm which would have been done if he had chosen the other.

  5. Optional courses of action; imminence of disaster. The defense of necessity applies when the defendant is faced with this choice of two evils: he may either do something which violates the literal terms of the criminal law and thus produce some harm, or not do it and so produce a greater harm. If, however, there is open to him a third alternative, which will cause less harm than will be caused by violating the law, he is not justified in violating the law. For example, "[a] prisoner subjected to inhuman treatment by his jailors is not justified in breaking prison if he can bring about an improvement in conditions by other means."

Marquardt at 137:

in order for the defense of necessity to have been warranted in this case, appellant must have presented "some evidence" that there was a choice between two evils, that no legal alternatives existed, that the harm appellant caused was not disproportionate to the harm avoided, and that the emergency was imminent.

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    So after decades of trying and failing to make the penal system more humane, prison break may now very well be the only means left...
    – Falco
    Nov 4, 2022 at 10:25
  • 2 and 4 seem to contradict one another, no?
    – mustaccio
    Nov 4, 2022 at 13:53
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    @mustaccio No. As dictated in the example supplied in 2, the harm done considered in 4 is the harm reasonably expected by the defendant, not necessarily the harm actually caused.
    – xngtng
    Nov 4, 2022 at 14:00
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    @mustaccio the relative harmfulness (not harm) is objectively determined by the finder of fact. The harm, on which the harmfulness is to be determined, relies on reasonable expectation.
    – xngtng
    Nov 4, 2022 at 16:33
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    For example, if the defendant broke into a home because they reasonably believed it was the only way to prevent someone from getting slapped, the court would accept the defendant's belief that the slap was going to happen, but the court would form its own opinion as to the relative harm of the slap versus the break-in? Nov 4, 2022 at 19:01
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I think that this type of question often misses the point. You are asking whether a certain act committed with a certain intention is legal, but no one can verify your intention, and there might be very different viewpoints on which act was committed. In the end, whether you will be ok or not will be decided by a long, costly and invasive process and you are not able (or advised) to give your side of the story for a long time.

  • The stranger in the home appreciated the help or at least is not going to press charges:

    => Nothing is going to happen to you. It does not matter whether your actions were justified

  • The stranger did not appreciate the help:

    • He will press charges against you. These charges will be based on his viewpoint, not yours. For example, you might be accused of breaking and entering, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon (did you use a tool to smash the window?), or even sexual assault.
    • If the prosecutor deems the charges serious enough you will be charged (potentially after review by a grand jury)
    • You will be arraigned, bail will be set
    • There might be a prelim hearing
    • You might agree to a plea bargain, or you might get your day in court.
      • Unless there was a prelim hearing, this might be the first opportunity to present your side of the story ("I saw him try to hang himself and went through the window to render aid")
      • Similarly, the prosecution will present their side of the story, which might be completely different ("I was hanging up Christmas decorations when a crazy person smashed my window with a tyre iron and attacked me")
      • The prosecution might have evidence that supports their side of the story (such as a grainy video from a surveillance camera that shows you violently smashing the window)
      • Witnesses might lie. The stranger might even be embarrassed to admit that he tried to hang himself. Such an admission might have very serious consequences for him, such as the loss of employment.
      • Your guilt will be decided based on which story is more credible to the jury. Personal feelings might also play a role, if you are not likable or the jury hates your lawyer it might tip the scales of justice enough so that you are found guilty.

You might also get sued in civil court, where the evidentiary standard not beyond a reasonable doubt, but preponderance of evidence. This might further weaken your case.

So even if you commit the act with the best of intentions, other people might have a very different view, and it is not clear who will prevail in court.

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    Or more nefarious things ike saving the life of someone choking when the owner wants their life insurance.
    – DKNguyen
    Nov 4, 2022 at 14:03
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    Or even worse - they die, and now you've just broken into a house and are standing over a corpse. Who looks guilty now? I think the thing to do is call the cops first, and if they can't get there quickly enough, they may advise you to go into the house, and then it's on them. If you break in first and call the cops after, it could be problematic. Nov 4, 2022 at 20:56
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    Going over procedural elements that are present for every criminal case worsens the signal to noise ratio of the answer, as it's all irrelevant. Nov 6, 2022 at 1:42
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    SO "worse case something crazy can happen" does not change what is or isn't legal. If I enter a home because my neighboor looked like he was having a heart attack, he tells me I'm wrong, and I immediately left then I haven't committed a crime. Yes in theory if people lie, no one believes the truth, and the cops leap to action something bad can happen, just like in theory I can be sitting in my home and someone could lie and say I tried to murder them. That doesn't change what is legal. And frankly I'm still going to try to save someone who is in danger.
    – dsollen
    Nov 6, 2022 at 1:51
  • @whatsisname I agree with you in general, but I feel in this case it does matter as OP specifically asks a soft question about where "the line is drawn". In the absence of a totally obvious situation the outcome will be determined by appearances and procedural details. Given that the OP's questions shows an utter lack of basic understanding it seemed appropriate to explain what will actually happen in such a case.
    – morad
    Nov 7, 2022 at 0:11
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In an emergency ... most states would like you to do the right thing and help, without being worried if you're going to get sued, some go so far as having a Duty to Assist which leaves you open to prosecution if you don't help (not that I know of anytime someone actually has been).

https://www.marylandinjurylawyerblog.com/good-samaritan-maryland.html

Maryland’s Good Samaritan law precludes civil liability to certain individuals providing emergency medical care. Here is the language of MD CTS & JUD PRO § 5-603 that gives us a definition and an explanation of who is covered by the law:

(a) A person described in subsection (b) of this section is not civilly liable for any act or omission in giving any assistance or medical care, if:

(1) The act or omission is not one of gross negligence;
(2) The assistance or medical care is provided without fee or other compensation; and
(3) The assistance or medical care is provided:

(i) At the scene of an emergency;
(ii) In transit to a medical facility; or
(iii) Through communications with personnel providing emergency assistance.

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    Not clear if that applies to trespass issues as opposed to negligence in the manner in which emergency medical care is provided.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 4, 2022 at 22:50
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    There was an interesting lawsuit (CA?): A woman dragged a victim out of a smoking car, victim ended up paralyzed, smoke disappeared without the car catching fire. Despite Good Samaritan law woman was found liable for the damage as she had not provided specifically medical assistance. Law was changed subsequently to cover cases like this.
    – morad
    Nov 4, 2022 at 23:01
  • Law has been changed in 2009 after this case: "The California Supreme Court ruled this week that Van Horn may sue Torti for allegedly causing her friend's paralysis. The case -- the first of its kind -- challenges the state's liability shield law that protects people who give emergency assistance. The court ruled 4-3 that only those administering medical care have legal immunity, but not those like Torti, who merely take rescue action. The justices said that the perceived danger to Van Horn in the wrecked car was not "medical." " abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=6498405&page=1
    – morad
    Nov 5, 2022 at 17:55

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