State v. Miller, ___ N.C. App. ___, 812 S.E.2d 692 (Mar. 6, 2018)

In this DWI case, the trial court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the defense of necessity. The defendant was arrested for DWI while driving a golf cart. The evidence showed that the defendant and his wife used the golf cart on paths connecting their home to a local bar, that he drove the golf cart to the bar on those paths on the evening in question, and that he planned to return the same way. However when a fight broke out at the bar, the defendant and his wife fled on the golf cart, driving on the roadway. The defendant was convicted and he appealed. The court began its analysis by noting that the affirmative defense of necessity is available to DWI defendants and involves these elements: reasonable action, taken to protect life, limb, or health of a person, and no other acceptable choices available. The trial court erred by applying an additional element, requiring that the defendant’s action was motivated by fear. The court went on to determine that an objective standard of reasonableness applies to necessity, as compared to duress which appears to involve a subjective standard. The evidence was sufficient to satisfy the first two elements of the defense: reasonable action taken to protect life, limb, or the health of a person. Here, the bar attracted a rough clientele, including “the biker crowd.” It was not unusual for fights to break out there, but the bar had no obvious security. On the night in question, the bar atmosphere became “intense” and “mean” such that the two decided to leave. The defendant then argued with several men in the parking lot, which escalated to shouting and cursing. The main person with whom the defendant was arguing was described as the “baddest mother_cker in the bar.” The defendant punched the man, knocking him to the ground. The man was angry and drew a handgun, threatening the defendant. Neither the defendant nor his wife were armed. The scene turned “chaotic,” with a woman telling the defendant’s wife that the man was “crazy” and that they needed to “get out of [t]here.” The defendant’s wife was concerned that the man might shoot the defendant, her or someone else. When the defendant saw the gun, he screamed at his wife to leave. The defendant’s wife said she had no doubt that if they had not fled in the golf cart they would have been hurt or killed by the man with the gun. On these facts the court held:

[S]ubstantial evidence was presented that could have supported a jury determination that a man drawing a previously concealed handgun, immediately after having been knocked to the ground by Defendant, presented an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to Defendant, [his wife], or a bystander, and that attempting to escape from that danger by driving the golf cart for a brief period on the highway was a reasonable action taken to protect life, limb, or health.

The court also found that there was sufficient evidence as to the third element of the defense: no other acceptable choices available. With respect to whether the perceived danger had abated by the time the defendant encountered the officer, the court noted that the defendant had pulled off the highway approximately 2/10 of a mile from the bar and the defendant’s wife said that she saw the officer within minutes of the altercation. The court concluded: “On the facts of this case, including . . . that there was a man with a firearm who had threatened to shoot Defendant, and who would likely have access to a vehicle, we hold two-tenths of a mile was not, as a matter of law, an unreasonable distance to drive before pulling off the highway.” The court further clarified that the defenses of necessity and duress are separate and distinct. And it held that the evidence also supported a jury instruction on duress.