Fleeing From an Officer

When avoiding the police becomes a criminal offense, and the possible penalties you’ll face for a conviction.

Simply avoiding a patrolling officer isn't technically a crime. But under certain circumstances, fleeing from the police is a serious criminal offense that carries severe penalties. This article explains when avoiding the police turns into criminal fleeing. We will also explain what you can expect in terms of penalties if you're convicted of this violation.

What Does "Evading the Police" Mean?

Every state prohibits running from the police. However, the offense goes by a variety of names, including "fleeing," "attempting to elude," "evading the police," and "failing to stop at the direction of police."

Regardless of nomenclature, the violation generally has three basic parts that prosecutors must prove to get a conviction:

  • Command for the driver to stop. The officer must communicate a command to the driver to pull over. Officers normally do this by activating lights and sirens. But an officer might also use hand signals, verbal commands, or a traffic whistle.
  • Officer identifiable as law enforcement. The officer directing the driver to pull over must be easily identifiable as law enforcement. Normally, prosecutors can prove this element by showing the officer was in uniform and operating a police vehicle. This element doesn't require anything specific. For instance, the patrol car doesn't have to be the standard black and white Crown Victoria. However, the prosecution must prove the officer's overall appearance would have enabled the driver to clearly ascertain that the stop was being initiated by an officer of the law.
  • Failure to stop. The final element the prosecution must prove is that the driver failed to bring his or her vehicle to a timely stop. This factor certainly involves some grey area as drivers are required to stop promptly but road and traffic conditions can sometimes make it unsafe to pull over immediately. Generally, when the driver does delay in stopping, the issue for the jury is whether the driver was trying to evade the officer or just finding an appropriate place to pull over.

Simply avoiding law enforcement isn't a crime. However, doing so can sometimes arouse an officer's suspicion. For instance, making a U-turn right before a DUI checkpoint might lead officers to think you're under the influence or trying to hide some other criminal activity.

Defenses to Evading Charges

To get a conviction, the prosecutor must prove all three parts (also called "elements") of the evading violation. If the prosecution can't prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury is required to find the defendant not guilty.

Defenses Related to the Burden of Proof

Unsurprisingly, most defenses to evading charges focus on disputing the prosecution's evidence on at least one of these parts. Generally, there's not much debate on the first two elements—the police generally were in a patrol car and activated their lights and sirens. So most of the potential for the defense is on the third element, where there's often some grey area.

For example, a skilled attorney might be able to convince a jury that something other than the desire to escape (such as not having a safe place to pull over) prevented the driver from immediately stopping.

Necessity Defense

In an emergency situation, it's possible for the necessity defense to come up. The necessity defense justifies an illegal act if the act is necessary to prevent serious harm. The necessity defense rarely comes into play. But if you did have an emergency—for instance, taking someone to the hospital who needs immediate attention—that prevented you from pulling over for law enforcement, the defense could certainly work for fighting an evading charge.

Penalties for Fleeing from the Police

The penalties you'll face for an evading violation depend on the circumstances. Each state penalizes evading a little differently. And the specific facts of a violation can also affect the penalties.

Misdemeanor Evading

In many states, in its simplest form, evading an officer is a misdemeanor. For example, a driver who drove just a little too far before being pulled over might face misdemeanor charges.

But even as a misdemeanor, evading charges often carry up to a year in jail and up to $1,000 or so in fines. The convicted driver might also face possible license suspension and demerit points on their driving record.

Felony Evading

Drivers who actually try to escape and take officers on long chases are more likely to face felony charges. With felony evading charges, prosecutors normally must prove an additional element. States define felony evading in different ways. But, generally, the extra element is related to the dangerousness of the driver's actions.

For example, some states make evading a felony where the suspect drives in a manner that shows a "willful or wanton disregard for the safety of property" of others. State laws also sometimes provide specific scenarios where evading is elevated to a felony. For instance, in some states, fleeing from the scene of another felony crime (a robbery, for example) while being pursued by an officer is a felony.

As a felony, evading an officer can carry a year or more in prison and fines that can be well up into the thousands. A felony conviction will also generally result in either a long period of license suspension or permanent revocation.