Friday, November 15, 2013

Commonwealth v. Capitolo case brief

Commonwealth v. Capitolo case brief summary
498 A.2d 806 (1985)

The commonwealth appealed an order of the Superior Court (Pennsylvania), which reversed judgments of sentence entered in the court of common pleas that had convicted defendants of trespass after defendants conducted a nuclear power plant sit-in. The lower appellate court held that the trial court should have allowed defendants to present their defense of justification, under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 503, to the jury.

The trial court convicted defendants of trespass because they conducted a sit-in at a nuclear power plant, and rejected a proffer of evidence of justification under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 503. The lower appellate court reversed and held that the justification issue should have been submitted to the jury.


  • On appeal, the court reversed and reinstated the judgments of sentence. 
  • The court held that to be entitled to an instruction on justification as a defense, evidence must show: 
  • (1) that the actor was faced with a clear and imminent harm, not one that was debatable or speculative; 
  • (2) that the actor could reasonably expect that the actor's actions would be effective in avoiding this greater harm;
  • (3) that there was no legal alternative that would be effective in abating the harm; and 
  • (4) that the legislature had not acted to preclude the defense by a clear and deliberate choice regarding the values at issue. 
  • The court agreed with the trial court's rulings that the justification defense was not available as a matter of law because defendants' trespass was a calculated choice and was neither a necessary nor an effective means by which to avoid any danger from radioactivity.

The court reversed the lower appellate court and held that the trial court had properly ruled, as a threshold matter of law, that the defense of justification or necessity was not available to defendants, who trespassed on nuclear power plant property. The court reinstated the judgments of sentence.

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