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At new trial, man who fled from police can argue he was justified

The Missouri Court of Appeals Southern District has ordered a new trial for a man who fled from police and crashed a cruiser in the process, saying the jury should have been allowed to consider if he had a “justification-by-necessity” defense under the law.

Jason Michael Hurst was convicted of first-degree tampering and resisting arrest after officers of the Newton County Sheriff’s Department tried to arrest him while he and his wife were being evicted from a trailer home. 

After he was placed in the back of the patrol car, Hurst got his handcuffed hands in front of him and drove away. The chase into the city of Neosho ended when Hurst’s driver-side tires hit a curb, causing the vehicle to roll.

At trial, Hurst sought a jury instruction that would have allowed jurors to decide if his actions were “justified as an emergency measure.” Under a law somewhat similar to the state’s self-defense laws, otherwise unlawful conduct can be deemed “justifiable and not criminal” if it is necessary to avoid an imminent injury and that “according to ordinary standards of intelligence and morality,” the desirability of avoiding the injury outweighs the harm the person causes.

Hurst alleges the officers attacked him with a taser, beat him, sprayed mace down his throat to the point that he couldn’t breathe and threatened to kill him and his wife. He argued that he fled in the cruiser to distract the officers, tried to radio for help and drove into town so that security cameras would record what was taking place.

At trial, Judge Kevin Lee Selby denied the instruction, saying it was entirely based on Hurst’s version of events, which “could have been handled in a much different way.”

“I’m having difficulty seeing how this long drawn out escape could be justified,” Selby said, according to the opinion. 

The Southern District, however, said that if there is substantial evidence of justification — even if it is the defendant’s testimony — the court is required to view that evidence in the light most favorable to submission. 

“Rather than disregarding inconsistent evidence,” Judge Don E. Burrell wrote, “the circuit court relied on such evidence as reasons to deny giving the instructions.” Judges Jeffrey W. Bates and Mary W. Sheffield concurred. 

The case is State v. Hurst, SD37395.