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Trespassing defense: bitter cold

Published Oct. 16, 2005

A homeless man who said he broke into an abandoned apartment house to escape bitter cold pleaded innocent to trespassing Wednesday on grounds that he was justified in breaking the law. The defendant, who gave his name as Benjamin Franklin Pierce, 44, was arrested in 7-degree weather Dec. 27.

The justification defense maintains that a person may break the law to prevent worse consequences.

Pierce could get up to 90 days in jail if convicted.

City Judge Roy Tepper will hear pretrial motions March 22.

"It's the first time we know of that a homeless person claims he was legally justified to break the law in order to seek shelter in a life-threatening situation," said Douglas Colbert, a Hofstra University law professor helping in Pierce's defense.

Pierce broke into a building that had been vacant for two years to save himself from freezing, Colbert said. "Any reasonably educated person would have done the same thing."

Pierce, a Vietnam veteran, has worked mainly as a painter and has been homeless for a couple of years since losing his apartment to gentrification, Colbert said.