The extended chase sequence in the 1971 William Freidkin film The French Connection is considered by many to be the best ever made. In the role of real-life NYPD detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, Gene Hackman chases a would-be assassin through a maze of New York streets, commandeering and smashing vehicles as he goes. Attempted murder aside, the perpetrator clearly was guilty of attempting to flee from a pursuing police officer.
Now here’s a much less dramatic scenario that can happen to even the most law-abiding citizen. You’re driving home, tired after a long day at work and you are singing along to one of your favorite classic rock songs (it’s okay – we all do it). You probably have the volume up just a little too loud. That’s why until you parked you didn’t realize there was a police cruiser trying to pull you over for the last two miles because you have a broken taillight. Now, however, he’s annoyed. Despite your attempt to explain, he’s planning to charge you with evading a peace officer.
Depending upon the circumstances (in particular, whether anyone was injured during the pursuit), in California evading a police officer can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony. Punishment can range from probation to serious jail time. You may also have your car impounded and have you driving privileges suspended.
If you are facing an evading charge in California, do you have any defenses? As in most criminal cases, the answer depends on the specific facts of your case. However, the prosecution has the burden to show beyond a reasonable doubt that all elements of the charge are present.
In the case of an evading charge, this means proving that:
‒The pursuing motor vehicle was marked as a police vehicle
‒You willfully attempted to flee
‒You had the specific intent to evade the officer
‒The police vehicle was equipped with at least one red light visible from someone in front, and that you saw it (or should have)
‒ The officer sounded the vehicle’s siren (if it was “reasonably necessary” to do so) and you heard it (or should have)
‒The officer was wearing a distinctive uniform
If the vehicle was a bicycle, no red light is required. However:
‒ There must still have been a distinctive uniform and distinctive marking of the cycle
‒ The officer must have sounded a horn which produces a sound of at least 115 decibels. (Interestingly, unlike in a motor vehicle pursuit, this appears to be required in all cycle chases)
‒ The officer must have given both a verbal stop command and a hand signal
Let’s first look at some of the items above which can be objectively proven or disputed:
- Was the pursuit vehicle marked? While a motor vehicle need not be a traditional cruiser, it must still have a logo, insignia or other characteristics that make it clear it is not an ordinary civilian vehicle.
- Was the vehicle equipped with the required lamp and siren (or horn, if it was a bicycle)?
- Was the siren or horn operating at the minimum 115 decibels? That’s about the same as an industrial riveting machine or loud rock concert.
- Did the pursuing officer wear a distinctive uniform? A ball cap emblazoned with “POLICE” is probably enough, though it’s unclear how this element can be established if the pursuit occurred at night and the officer remained in his vehicle
Now for the subjective intent question. Because only you know whether you intended to evade to an officer, intent to evade – that is, the specific intent to evade or lose the officer – must be proven by your behavior. In the scenario above, you know (and will testify) that you were unaware of the pursuit and didn’t have the required intent. Whether that is accepted as true, however, will depend upon both your credibility and your actions.