Court Case Result Counters Trend on Criminalization of Homelessness

As this past June came to a close, so too did a crucial case which affirmed to the state of Massachusetts that homelessness would not not be considered a crime within its borders. Commonwealth v. Magadini–which was taken on by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts–was a saga beginning in early 2014, when complications arose from the original trial court of the case; since that time, the trial has become a key battle in the fight for increased rights for the homeless.

“Our law does not permit the punishment of the homeless simply for being homeless,” wrote Justice Geraldine Hines of the State High Court in the trial’s decision.

It began when David Magadini, a homeless man in Great Barrington and well known member of that community, spent a night in February 2014 looking for a respite from the winter cold. After being unable to get into an emergency shelter–and not having the means to rent a room–Magadini found his way into a hallway on private property. This is where police officers found and arrested him for trespassing.

In court, Magadini asked that the jury be informed of the necessity defense, an argument stating that he should not be held accountable for his crime because it was committed in an emergency situation for the sake of his personal safety.

“This case provides a quintessential example of an instance where the necessity defense is required. Mr. Magadini trespassed in the hallway of mixed-use property, but only to escape bitter cold after being denied access to emergency shelter,” said Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, who worked on Magadini’s defense. “The necessity defense provides a critical safety valve, which allows juries to acquit individuals when they determine that following the law would cause more harm than breaking it.” According to the ruling, however, the judge denied this request.

The trial saw Magadini guilty and the judge’s decision to omit the information of necessity defense to the jury has since been seen as controversial by many. This amalgam is what brought the ACLU, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and more into the case in an attempt to Magadini another shot in court. The ACLU called the judge’s decision “unlawful, ineffective, and unfair.”

The renewed trial and push for the necessity defense led to the victory for Magadini that was seen in June. “[The decision] confirms that poverty is not a crime in the Commonwealth, it reinforces the very purposes of the necessity defense and ensures that people in the Commonwealth have a voice and an opportunity to decide how we as a community are going to address the issue of homelessness,” Rossman said.

Joseph Schneiderman, another attorney defending Magadini, called it a landmark ruling in the ongoing issue regarding the criminalization of homelessness.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, nearly 13 percent of nation’s low-income housing has been lost since 2001, leaving more people with fewer routes out of homelessness. On top of this, 18 percent of U.S. cities ban sleeping in public and 42 percent ban sleeping in vehicles.

Three out of four homeless people are unaware of a place where it’s both safe and legal for them to sleep, according to the NLCHP.

These laws, coupled with other vagrancy charges such as loitering, have historically affected homeless populations drastically more than other citizens. A criminal record as a result of these charges can leave homeless citizens fighting an even steeper uphill battle out of their situations.

Zach Mobrice is an intern at Spare Change News. A native of Rhode Island, Zach studies journalism at Roger Williams University.

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