The crime of evading arrest is committed when a person flees (runs away) from a police officer to avoid being apprehended, detained, or arrested.
Evading Arrest, Obstructing Justice, Resisting Arrest, and Resisting Arrest by Force
Some states have specific laws against evading arrest on foot. Other states have a general law that prohibits obstructing justice or resisting arrest, which includes running away from an officer (as well as other behavior).
Evading arrest on foot (sometimes called flight) is committed by knowingly running away from an officer to escape capture, detention, or arrest.
Obstructing justice is committed when someone knowingly hinders or interferes with a police officer when the officer is performing official duties. The person does not need to use force to obstruct justice. Any conduct that prevents an officer from successfully performing an official duty could constitute obstruction.
Examples of obstruction include running away from an officer who is trying to make an arrest, going limp during an arrest, or drawing a weapon during a traffic stop.
Resisting arrest is defined differently by each state. It may be as broad as obstructing justice, or more narrow, requiring specific acts. The name of the crime is unimportant; what is important is what behavior the law prohibits.
Resisting arrest by force. In some states, the crime of resisting arrest is limited to using force against an officer during a detention or arrest. Resisting arrest by force is usually a felony.
If the officer sustains any sort of injury, the defendant can also be convicted of battery against an officer. For more information on this crime, see Battery Against a Police Officer.
Arrest and detention
Flight is not a crime unless the defendant has been detained or arrested. The line between a detention and arrest is not always clear, but generally, a person is under arrest whenever a police officer has stopped the person and the person is not free to leave. A detention occurs when a person is briefly stopped by a police officer. For example, a passenger in a car that is stopped for a traffic violation is detained.
Invalid and illegal arrests and detentions
In order for an arrest to be valid (to hold up in court), the officer must have a warrant or, lacking a warrant, reason to believe that the person has committed a crime and a legally-recognized justification for not obtaining a warrant. And a detention is valid only if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity. But in most circumstances, even when the original arrest or detention was invalid, a person does not have the right to evade or resist the arrest or detention.
On the other hand, some arrests and detentions are illegal, which is quite different from being invalid. If the officer conducting the detention or making the arrest knows that the person has not committed any crime, but makes the arrest anyway, the arrest or detention may be illegal, and the officer could be arrested for breaking the law. For example, an officer who arrests his brother-in-law on trumped-up charges, in order to punish him for being unkind to the officer's sister, has made an illegal arrest. In some states, a person can lawfully resist an illegal arrest by running away, but using violence to resist any arrest, even an illegal one, is almost never permitted.
Law Enforcement Officers
Under the laws in most states, "police officer" is defined broadly. Evading arrest or obstruction of justice can be committed against a variety of law enforcement officials, such as:
- police officers, including transit officers and university police
- sheriffs officers, and
- correctional officers.
In most states, the crimes of evading arrest, resisting arrest, and obstruction can be committed only when the officer is performing official duties or acting as a police officer. The officer does not necessarily need to be on the clock as long as the officer is performing a job duty. Examples of official duties include directing traffic and conducting an investigation, as well as making an arrest.
In most states, in order for the crime of obstruction of justice to be committed, the defendant must know or have reason to know that the victim is an officer and is performing the duties of an officer. For example, a defendant would have reason to know that a person is an officer if the officer was in uniform, was driving a marked car, or if the officer said, “I am a police officer.” The officer does not necessarily have to do or say any of these things, if other circumstances put the defendant on notice that the officer was an officer.
Punishment for Evading Arrest
Punishment varies depending on the state and the circumstances of the offense. Evading an officer on foot, obstructing justice, and resisting arrest are usually misdemeanors, punishable by up to one year in jail. Instead of or in addition to jail time, the court may impose a fine or probation.
Factors that might make evading arrest a felony include:
- a defendant’s prior convictions for flight, resisting arrest, or obstruction
- any injury to a bystander or officer, whether the injury is directly caused by the defendant or caused by an officer in pursuit of the defendant, and
- behavior that creates a risk of death or serious injury.
The use of force against an officer (resisting arrest by force or battery against an officer) is generally a felony, punishable by imprisonment.
If You are Stopped By an Officer
If you are stopped by a police officer, obey the officer’s instructions. Do not resist. Do not run away. Do not make any sudden movements and keep your hands visible at all times. Resisting arrest can endanger you and result in charges against you, even if the original arrest or stop was invalid. Disobeying an officer, running away, or resisting arrest can only get you in more trouble.
Getting Legal Advice and Representation
If you are charged with evading arrest, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. A local attorney will know the law in your state and will also be able to tell you how your case is likely to be treated in court. Some judges and prosecutors are lenient, while others can treat you harshly. An attorney will be able to help you understand the criminal justice system and prepare the best arguments in your case so that you can achieve the best outcome.