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In the landmark case State ex rel. Haskell v. Spokane County District Court, a significant legal precedent was set regarding the application of the necessity defense in instances of civil disobedience. This case revolves around George Taylor’s act of protest against the transportation of oil and coal by railcars, which led to charges of second-degree trespass and obstructing a train. Taylor’s attempt to assert a necessity defense raises crucial questions about the limits of legal defenses in the context of civil protest.

The Necessity Defense: A Brief Overview

The necessity defense is a legal doctrine that justifies a defendant’s actions as necessary to avoid a greater harm. However, its application is strictly regulated, particularly in cases involving intentional violation of the law as a form of protest. The core of this case examines whether civil disobedience provides grounds for invoking the necessity defense, especially when constitutional laws are intentionally breached.

The Facts and Judicial Findings

Taylor, along with other protestors, trespassed on BNSF Railway Company’s property to protest the environmental hazards posed by transporting fossil fuels. Despite clear “No Trespassing” signs and warnings from law enforcement, Taylor refused to leave, leading to his arrest and subsequent legal battle. In court, Taylor sought to assert the necessity defense, supported by expert testimonies on climate change and the effectiveness of civil resistance.

The district court’s decision to allow Taylor to present the necessity defense at trial was challenged, leading to a critical examination of whether his actions could indeed be justified under this legal principle. The appellate court’s analysis focused on whether Taylor had reasonable legal alternatives to his unlawful conduct and whether his act of trespass and obstruction could be deemed necessary to avoid a greater environmental harm.

The appellate court concluded that Taylor’s actions did not meet the criteria for the necessity defense. It emphasized that engaging in civil disobedience by violating constitutional laws does not warrant the application of this defense, highlighting that there are always lawful alternatives to effectuating change, such as public protest, education, and petitioning elected officials. This decision underscores the judiciary’s stance that the necessity defense cannot be used to circumvent constitutional laws, even under the guise of advocating for social or environmental causes.

This ruling has significant implications for activists and legal practitioners alike, delineating the boundaries of acceptable legal defense in the context of civil disobedience. It clarifies that while the right to protest is protected, the means of expressing dissent must conform to legal standards. The court’s decision reinforces the principle that lawful avenues for change must be exhausted before resorting to actions that contravene the law.


State ex rel. Haskell v. Spokane County District Court sets a pivotal legal precedent that balances the right to protest against the necessity to uphold constitutional laws. It serves as a cautionary tale for activists, reminding them of the legal limitations of civil disobedience and the importance of pursuing change through lawful means. This case not only contributes to the ongoing dialogue about environmental activism and legal strategies but also reaffirms the judiciary’s role in maintaining the rule of law in the face of social and political challenges.

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About Blanford Law:

We are no-nonsense, relentless, fair, and honest. We are great listeners instead of fast talkers, that is just who we are. More than 20 years ago, Ken began practicing law with a deeply-seeded belief that every person has the right to the best legal representation available. He built his law firm on that belief. Another belief that he strongly adheres to is his fundamental belief that clients deserve respect, with no assumptions or preconceived notions.  If you or someone you know is accused of a crime or injured as a result of the negligence of another, please have them call us at 253-720-9304 or email us