United States v. Schoon
971 F.2d 193 (1992)

  • Schoon and a bunch of other peaceniks stormed an IRS building in Tucson. They were protesting the use of tax dollars to fund proxy wars in Central America.
  • Schoon et. al. were arrested and charged with obstruction.
    • Schoon admitted the acts, but argued the defense of necessity (aka choice of evils), claiming that their criminal acts were motivated only by humanitarian concerns.
    • Basically, they argued that they were maximizing social welfare by committing a crime where the social benefits of the crime (US out of El Savador), outweighed the costs of committing the crime (annoying some IRS workers).
  • The Trial Court found Schoon et. al. guilty of obstruction. They appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that in order to invoke the necessity defense, a defendant must show:
      • The defendants were faced with a choice of evils and chose the lesser one.
      • They acted to prevent imminent harm.
      • They reasonably anticipated a direct causal relationship between their conduct and the harm to be averted.
      • They had no legal alternatives to violating the law.
    • The Trial Court found that they failed on every requirement.
  • The Appellate Court upheld the conviction, but for different reasons.
    • The Appellate Court found that Schoon et. al. were involved in indirect civil disobedience.
      • ‘indirect’ because they weren’t directly violating the law they didn’t like, they were protesting something else.
    • The Court found that the defense of necessity can never be used for indirect civil disobedience because it requires another actor not controlled by the protestors (e.g. Congress) to take action.
      • Basically, it isn’t the protests that will get the US out of El Salvador. The protests will only raise public awareness, which might convince Congress to amend the law. Because of that intervening step, you can never say that the protests were the cause of the change in policy. So there are no direct social benefits from the crime to balance out the costs of committing the crime.
    • The Court found that a constitutional law or government policy can never be considered a legally cognizable harm. Therefore there is no social benefit to overturning the law.