Nelson v. State

597 P.2d 977 (1979)

Quick Summary

Dale Nelson (defendant) became stuck with his truck and used heavy equipment without permission to attempt a rescue, causing significant damage. The dispute involved whether his actions were justified under the defense of necessity.

The Supreme Court of Alaska concluded that Nelson’s actions did not constitute an emergency that would invoke the necessity defense, affirming his conviction for reckless destruction and joyriding.

Facts of the Case

Dale Nelson (defendant) experienced a mishap when his truck became stuck in a marshy area off the Steese Highway. Concerned about the potential tipping of the truck, he and his companions embarked on a futile effort to dislodge it. Assistance from passersby proved unavailing, leading them to unlawfully commandeer a dump truck from a nearby yard, which subsequently also became ensnared.

Further efforts with a front-end loader only deepened their predicament, culminating in both vehicles being mired. Exhausted from the day-long ordeal, they eventually surrendered to sleep. Their makeshift rescue operation not only failed but caused considerable damage to the heavy equipment, resulting in Nelson’s conviction for reckless destruction of personal property and joyriding.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Dale Nelson was convicted in district court for reckless destruction of personal property and joyriding.
  2. The superior court affirmed the conviction.
  3. Nelson appealed to the Supreme Court of Alaska, challenging the jury instructions related to the defense of necessity.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the jury was properly instructed on the defense of necessity in the case where Dale Nelson (defendant) used heavy equipment without permission during an emergency.

Rule of Law

The defense of necessity allows for the violation of law to prevent a greater harm, provided there is no adequate alternative and the harm caused is not disproportionate to the harm avoided. This defense includes circumstances where an individual has a reasonable belief that an emergency exists.

Reasoning and Analysis

The court considered whether Nelson’s actions were justified under the defense of necessity. The court acknowledged that necessity could be claimed if an individual reasonably believed that their actions were necessary to prevent a greater harm.

However, it concluded that Nelson’s situation did not constitute an immediate and dire emergency that would justify the use of heavy equipment without permission.

Nelson had alternatives such as accepting help from passersby or contacting authorities. The court also found that the potential harm to Nelson’s truck was not greater than the damage caused by his actions. Therefore, any error in the jury instruction was deemed harmless since Nelson did not establish a valid necessity defense.


The Supreme Court of Alaska affirmed Nelson’s conviction, ruling that his actions did not meet the criteria for the defense of necessity.

Key Takeaways

  1. The necessity defense requires that the act charged must have been done to prevent a significant evil with no adequate alternative, and the harm caused must not be disproportionate to the harm avoided.
  2. A reasonable belief in an emergency can justify necessity, but it must be proportional and with no lawful alternatives available.
  3. In this case, any errors in jury instruction were considered harmless because Nelson failed to establish a valid necessity defense based on his circumstances.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes a 'greater harm' in the defense of necessity?

The defense of necessity involves choosing the lesser of two evils. ‘Greater harm’ is the more serious injury or damage that would likely occur without the action taken. This harm must be imminent and significantly more severe than the harm caused by the unlawful action.

  • For example: Breaking into a cabin to find shelter during a blizzard, where the harm prevented (death or serious injury due to exposure) is greater than the property rights violation.

How does proportionality play a role in establishing a necessity defense?

In the necessity defense, proportionality requires that the act taken must not be excessive compared to the harm it aims to prevent. The benefits of acting must clearly outweigh the consequences of respecting the law in that situation.

  • For example: Speeding to rush a critically ill person to the hospital may be considered proportional, as the potential harm avoided (loss of life) is much greater than the legal infraction (speeding).

What are considered 'adequate alternatives' in negating a necessity defense?

‘Adequate alternatives’ refer to other legal options available to avoid the harm without resorting to illegal acts. If such alternatives exist and are feasible, then a necessity defense may not apply.

  • For example: If someone can call emergency services instead of unlawfully commandeering a vehicle for transport to a hospital, using the vehicle may not be justified as no adequate alternatives were exhausted.


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