Evading the Police

Learn about the crime of evading (or eluding) a police officer by car, including its possible consequences.

By , MSLIS · Long Island University

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.

Evading or Fleeing an Officer: The Issues

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:

  • immediately speeding away from the officer
  • stopping but then driving off
  • driving several miles before pulling over
  • increasing the speed of the vehicle, or
  • extinguishing the vehicle lights.

Eluding, Fleeing, Obstructing, or Resisting: A Crime By Many Names

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. § 316.1935 (2022).) Other states, such as New Mexico and West Virginia, include the offense as part of a broader "resisting" or "obstructing" statute. (N.M. Stat. § 30-22-1; W.V. Code § 61-5-17 (2022).) Still, others refer to the act as fleeing an officer. (Minn. Stat. § 609.487 (2022).)

Elements of the Offense

As described above, the crime of evading police requires that an officer give a command to stop and the defendant knowingly disobeys that command.

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 or 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 Law Enforcement

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:

  • interferes with the operation of the officer's vehicle
  • endangers the officer or another person, or
  • kills the officer while fleeing.

A felony eluding conviction in Virginia can result in up to 10 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 §§ 18.2-10, 18.2-11, 46.2-817 (2022).)

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 (2022).)

Legal Help

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.

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