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The Double Standard: When is it Legal to Run from Police?

Posted by Steve Karimi | May 29, 2015 | 0 Comments

Due to the seemingly unending current events surrounding police and citizen relations, it has been a busy year for criminal law development. Although the case law was decided fifteen years ago, the question of when you can run from police has resurfaced given the legal ramifications and double standards that the Supreme Court has set- as illustrated by the Freddie Gray tradgedy. It is already established by now, that Freddie Gray was not doing anything wrong when he ran from police that fateful day on April 12. Police would later find out he had a switchblade in his pocket, but that was not the reason why he ran.

According to the police report, the patrol officer made eye contact with gray, which prompted him to run. It is obvious by now that in impoverished communities such as Gray's, the mere presence of police make people nervous; that was the reason Gray ran. He was nervous since he has a past record of petty crime, ranging from past arrests for relatively minor drug charges and other piddling offenses. It would also be discovered that Gray hailed from a neighborhood from Baltimore, Sandtown-Winchester, that had a poverty and unemployment rate double that of the nation, and three times the arrest rate. Baltimore police initially said the officers acted because they believed Gray was involved in some kind of criminal activity.

What the Supreme Court said about Evading a Police Officer

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in Illinois v. Wardlow that flight at the mere sight of a police officer could often, in the context of other factors, be suspicious enough to justify the police in conducting a stop-and-frisk search. In that case, Officers were patrolling in a high-crime area in Chicago when they spotted Defendant Wardlow. Wardlow spotted them and started fleeing down an alley way. Police pursued him by car, and subsequently patted him upon catching him. Defendant Wardlow was charged for the possession of a gun, and his motion to suppress the evidence (gun) was denied in the trial court.

The 5-4 Majority by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, held that one's presence in an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking, combined with his unprovoked flight, justified the 4th amendment Terry stop and search. In other words, the Court held that the unprovoked flight from police while not a crime in itself, is still ‘cause for suspicion' (and therefore fulfills the reasonable suspicion standard). However, courts have repeatedly required police to have some justification for stopping or questioning someone in a public place- so while flight may fulfill the reasonable suspicion standard, it is not probable cause for arrest (a higher standard, which requires that police have “sufficiently trustworthy facts” to believe the person was or will be involved in a crime

This means that while fleeing from police is not, by itself, illegal in America, the Court indicated that in safe neighborhoods, people not suspected of criminal activity can ignore a police officer who approaches them. However, in a “high crime” area such as Gray's neighborhood, fleeing fulfilled the standard of reasonable suspicion that justifies a stop and frisk. This has created a double standard in neighborhoods where citizens are already afraid of police, and want to avoid them.

Washington State law

Evading an officer essentially means that you tried to flee from police, with the intent of fleeing from them. In the state of Washington, situations such as the one that made national headlines occur all too often. Back in February, a man was shot as many as 13 times for attempting to flee on foot from the Pasco Police Department in Washington State. At common law, the “fleeing felon” rule allows police to use lethal force against an individual who is suspected of a felony and is in clear flight.

While the caselaw decided by the Supreme Court is also binding on Washington state, the crime of evading a police officer in Washington is addressed through the Motor Vehicle Code.

RCW 46.61.022 (Failure to obey officer)- Any person who willfully fails to stop when requested or signaled to do so by a person reasonably identifiable as a law enforcement officer or to comply with RCW 46.61.021(3), is guilty of a misdemeanor.

RCW 46.61.024 (Attempting to elude police vehicle)- “Any driver of a motor vehicle who willfully fails or refuses to immediately bring his or her vehicle to a stop and who drives his or her vehicle in a reckless manner while attempting to elude a pursuing police vehicle after being given a visual or audible signal to bring the vehicle to a stop” is guilty of a Class C felony and the revocation of their license. It is a legal defense if it can be shown that: (a) A reasonable person would not believe that the signal to stop was given by a police officer; and (b) driving after the signal to stop was reasonable under the circumstances. RCW 46.61.024 is a criminal statute, although it is coded in the Motor Vehicles Code of Washington.

All public vehicles including police cars must be marked on the sides with identifying lettering or logo. See RCW 46.08.065. However, undercover sheriff's office and police vehicles are exempt from this requirement. See RCW 46.08.065(1).

A charge of evading police is no laughing matter. It can come at the cost of heavy fines, imprisonment of up to 5 years, probation, and revocation of your license.

Let My Extensive Experience as a Former Prosecutor Work For You."

When you understand the potential consequences of a misdemeanor or felony conviction, you will understand how important it is to work with an experienced attorney who knows the local courts and inner workings of law enforcement. Seattle criminal defense lawyer Steve Karimi has been zealously defending people's constitutional rights for decades. As He represents people in any state criminal court in Washington facing a wide range of misdemeanor, juvenile, and felony criminal threat charges- including charges of evading a police officer. Contact a Seattle traffic violations defense attorney online or call 206-621-8777 to schedule a free initial consultation. 24-hour-a-day call service is available at 206-660-6200.

About the Author

Steve Karimi

Steve Karimi attended Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduation he worked as a prosecutor in Seattle where he gained valuable insight to the criminal justice system. Attorney Karimi uses his experiences as a prosecutor everyday only now he fights for the justice of those accused.

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Named a "rising star" in criminal defense by Washington Law and Politics magazine, Mr. Karimi is a former prosecutor for King County who uses his insight into prosecution strategies to protect his clients' rights in criminal court.