PA Superior Court: Insufficient Evidence of Escape Where Police Arrested Defendant, Took Him to Hospital, Removed Handcuffs, and Left

Pennsylvania Case Law Update - Escape Charges Require Evidence of "Official Detention"

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just reaffirmed that a conviction for escape cannot be upheld under Pennsylvania law without evidence that the defendant was subject to official detention at the time that the defendant walked out. In Commonwealth v. Treece, the court found that a defendant could not have committed the crime of escape where he was arrested, taken to the hospital, and then left uncuffed and unguarded at the hospital for over an hour before walking out and returning to work. 

THE ESCAPE ALLEGATIONS

Defendant Treece violated a Protection From Abuse order. He was taken to the police station, and while there, he indicated to the arresting officers that he felt sick. The police called paramedics, and paramedics took Treece to the hospital. During transport, Treece was cuffed to the gurney. However, once he was admitted to the hospital, it became clear that Treece was going to be there for a while. The police removed the handcuffs and left. Shockingly, Treece quickly recovered from his illness and walked out of the hospital. Police later arrested Treece and charged him with escape for leaving the hospital. The jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to 11.5 – 23 months of incarceration in the county jail.

APPEAL TO THE SUPERIOR COURT

Treece appealed his conviction for escape to the Superior Court, arguing that the Commonwealth introduced insufficient evidence at trial to sustain a conviction because he was no longer in official detention as required by the escape statute once the police officers uncuffed him and left. As the Superior Court noted, the crime of escape occurs when someone “unlawfully removes himself from official detention or fails to return to official detention following temporary leave granted for a specific purpose or limited period.” The escape statute further defines official detention as:

arrest, detention in any facility for custody of persons under charge or conviction of crime or alleged or found to be delinquent, detention for extradition or deportation, or any other detention for law enforcement purposes; but the phrase does not include supervision of probation or parole, or constraint incidental to release on bail.

The Superior Court quickly noted that once police took Treece to the hospital, he was no longer in a facility for custody of persons. Because police removed the handcuffs and left, he was also no longer in police custody. Therefore, the only remaining issue was whether he was subject to “any other detention for law enforcement purposes.” A person is subject to detention for law enforcement purposes when a reasonable person, considering the totality of the circumstances, would not believe themselves free to leave. This is the same as the standard for whether an encounter with the police rises to the level of a Terry stop.

INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE OF OFFICIAL DETENTION

Here, the Superior Court concluded that Treece was not subject to detention for law enforcement purposes. The police had removed the handcuffs and left over an hour before he left the hospital. Further, it is not uncommon in the suburban counties for a defendant to be arrested, given paperwork, and released prior to preliminary arraignment. The court also noted that when hospital employees called the police and told them what had happened, the police did not immediately obtain a warrant or take any other action to retrieve Treece. Likewise, none of the police officers told Treece he could not leave the hospital.

Therefore, the Court found that a reasonable person in Treece’s position would have believed that he was free to leave. Of course, Treece was in official detention while handcuffed and guarded by the police officers. But once they left and did not return for more than an hour, the official detention ended, and Treece could not commit the crime of escape. Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed Treece’s conviction for escape due to the Commonwealth’s failure to introduce sufficient evidence at trial that Treece was subject to an “official detention.”

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Our Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Can Help You Fight Escape Charges

Treece illustrates that criminal statutes are more complicated than they may seem. In many cases, criminal statutes define ordinary, common terms such as escape or official detention in specific ways which may vary from their normal usage. Under Pennsylvania law, escape has a very specific detention which requires a showing of official detention. Although prosecutors and many people likely had a gut feeling that Treece had done something wrong by leaving, every criminal statute requires the government to prove specific statutory elements in order to obtain a conviction. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that you retain an experienced criminal defense lawyer if you are facing criminal charges. There may very well be defenses of which you are unaware. If you are facing charges in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session with one of our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers.