A driver who flees after a police officer issues an order to stop has likely committed a criminal offense: evading (or eluding) a law enforcement officer. It’s a crime that can lead to serious penalties.
The precise definition of eluding a police officer can differ somewhat from state to state, but the offense is basically a driver intentionally disobeying a law enforcement officer’s command to stop. Some examples of “evading” include:
FLEEING FROM LAW ENFORCEMENT WHEN NOT IN A VEHICLE
It’s also a crime to disobey a police officer’s order to stop if you’re not in a vehicle. For more, see our article on evading arrest on foot.
Eluding, Obstructing, or Resisting? Some states have statutes that specifically prohibit drivers from eluding a police officer. Florida, for example, has a law barring drivers from “fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer.” (Fla. Stat. Ann. § 316.1935 (2017).) Other states, such as New Mexico and West Virginia, include the offense as part of a broader “resisting” or “obstructing” statute. (N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-22-1 and W.V. Code § 61-5-17 (2017).)
Knowledge. Fleeing from an officer—on its own— isn’t always a crime. For instance, a driver who gets nervous driving near the police and therefore decides to exit the freeway upon seeing a patrol vehicle might not have broken the law. Courts have tended to hold that a driver must know that an officer has issued a command to stop in order for “flight” to become a crime.
Form of command. In many states, an officer’s command to stop doesn’t have to be oral. For example, an officer can order a stop by using a hand signal or displaying a badge. A police car’s flashing lights and sirens are also considered commands. (Generally, the officer has to be on duty and identifiable as law enforcement, whether by uniform, badge, or marked police car.)
Passengers. Some courts have held that even someone who wasn’t driving when an officer ordered a stop can be convicted of evading. For example, a passenger who urges the driver to take off after an officer orders a stop could be guilty.
Penalties for eluding or evading a police officer vary by state. In some states, such as Virginia, the crime can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. In that state, if a driver simply disobeys an officer’s order to stop, the crime will likely be charged as a misdemeanor. On the other hand, the crime can result in a felony charge if the driver:
A felony eluding conviction in Virginia can result in up to ten years in prison and a fine of as much as $100,000. A misdemeanor conviction in that state carries the possibility of six months’ jail time and a fine of up to $1,000. (Va. Code Ann. § § 18.2-10, 18.2-11, 46.2-817 (2017).)
In other states, such as Michigan, eluding law enforcement is always a felony, carrying potential penalties of up to 15 years in prison and a fine of as much as $10,000. (Mich. Comp. Laws § 257.602a (2017).)
The specific elements of crimes and their potential punishments depend on your jurisdiction. For more information on evading an officer, or to learn about the laws in your area, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.