Court: Man can't be punished 'simply for being homeless'

AP News
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Posted: Jun 23, 2016 12:50 PM

BOSTON (AP) — A homeless man convicted of criminal trespassing for taking shelter in privately owned buildings during harsh winter weather won a new trial Thursday when the state's highest court ruled that he should have been allowed to argue it was his only way to protect himself from the cold.

The Supreme Judicial Court found that the judge at David Magadini's trial was wrong to deny a request to instruct the jury on a so-called necessity defense. Magadini wanted to use that defense to argue that his behavior was justified for a person trying to escape extreme temperatures.

In a unanimous, 7-0 ruling, the court threw out six 2014 trespassing convictions. The court said the necessity defense allows a jury to weigh the plight of a homeless person against any harm caused by a trespass before determining criminal responsibility.

"Our law does not permit punishment of the homeless simply for being homeless," Justice Geraldine Hines wrote for the court.

The owners of three properties in Great Barrington had obtained no-trespass orders against Magadini. He was convicted of seven counts of criminal trespass for entering the buildings in February, March, April and June of 2014, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

In requesting a jury instruction on the necessity defense, Magadini's lawyer argued that his conduct was justified as the only lawful alternative for a homeless person facing the "clear and imminent danger" of exposure to the elements during periods of extreme outdoor temperatures.

The judge denied the request, finding that Magadini had alternatives to trespassing.

Magadini's lawyer, Joseph Schneiderman, hailed Thursday's decision as a landmark ruling that could have a broad impact for homeless people, saying it "has the potential to do great good."

Magadini, now 67, became homeless after he moved out of his parents' home in 2004, according to background included in the court's ruling. He lived outside year-round, first at a park and later at an outdoor gazebo behind Great Barrington Town Hall. He considered the gazebo his home and registered to vote from its address.

He sometimes sought shelter in private buildings during severe winter weather.

The trial judge found that Magadini had other available legal alternatives, including motels, hotels and the police station. The high court disagreed.

While the SJC vacated six of Magadini's convictions for trespassing during the winter months, it upheld one conviction for an incident in June 2014, when Magadini entered an ice cream shop where a no-trespass order had been issued against him. Magadini said he needed to use the bathroom. The high court said he had not shown a "clear and imminent danger."

The case had been closely watched by advocates who supported Magadini, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.