Fleeing or Eluding a Police Officer
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Wise, holding that the fleeing or eluding statute does not require evidence that the police pursued the defendant's vehicle in order for prosecutors to obtain a conviction.
What is Fleeing or Eluding?
Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Code makes it a crime to fail to stop your car or truck when ordered to do so by a police officer. 75 Pa.C.S. Sec. 3733 defines fleeing and eluding as follows:
(a) Offense defined.--Any driver of a motor vehicle who
willfully fails or refuses to bring his vehicle to a stop, or who
otherwise flees or attempts to elude a pursuing police officer,
when given a visual and audible signal to bring the vehicle to a
stop, commits an offense as graded in subsection (a.2).
* * *
(b) Signal by police officer.--The signal given by the police may be by hand, voice, emergency lights or siren.
Commonwealth v. Wise
Until recently, there was some dispute as to whether the fleeing or eluding statute required some evidence of pursuit by the police. In Commonwealth v. Wise, the Superior Court rejected the defendant's argument that she could not be convicted of fleeing or eluding without some evidence that the police attempted to pursue her.
In Wise, the defendant was convicted of Fleeing or Attempting to Elude a Police Officer (75 Pa.C.S. Sec. 3733). At trial, the Commonwealth presented only the testimony of the arresting officer. The officer testified that she was interviewing witnesses to a minor car accident in York County. While interviewing witnesses, she observed a green Mustang convertible with the top down approach the intersection. As the vehicle approached the intersection, the officer made contact with the defendant, who was driving the vehicle. The officer recognized her from previous interactions and knew that she did not have a valid driver’s license.
After recognizing the defendant, the officer approached the Mustang and asked the defendant some questions. The officer then asked her to pull over. The officer was in full uniform, including a vest, belt, badge, and patches on the arms. The officer pointed to where the defendant should pull over. Instead of pulling over as ordered, the defendant drove away at a high rate of speed. Notably, the officer did not pursue the defendant because she was still responding to the auto accident. She did, however, notify dispatch that the motor vehicle had fled the scene at a high rate of speed, and the defendant was later charged with fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer.
The jury convicted the defendant of fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and she was sentenced to two years of probation, costs and fines, and 100 hours of community service. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly failed to instruct the jury that the jury must find that she was pursued by the police in order to convict her. Instead, the trial court instructed the jury that it could convict the defendant of fleeing and eluding if it found beyond a reasonable doubt that she
- was the driver of a motor vehicle,
- was given a visual and audible signal by the police officer to stop,
- that she failed or refused to bring the vehicle to a stop or fled, and
- that she did so willfully, meaning she was aware of the officer’s signal to stop and refused to do so.
On appeal, Wise argued that trial court should have required the jury to also find that she had attempted to elude a pursuing police officer. She argued that the absence of a comma after the phrase “or who otherwise flees” (“Oxford comma”), compels that the statute requires “‘a pursuing police officer,’ regardless of whether a motorist ‘flees’ or ‘attempts to elude’ the police.” Therefore, because the officer never pursued her, the jury was arguably misinformed as to an element of the statute.
Both the trial court and the Superior Court rejected the argument. The Superior Court found that the punctuation or lack thereof did not change the requirements of the statute. Instead, a violation of the statute can be proven in three ways. In order to show that someone commits the offense, the Commonwealth must prove only that a driver, when given a visual and audible signal to stop,
- willfully fails or refuses to stop, or
- otherwise flees
- or attempts to elude a pursuing police officer.
Therefore, the trial court had properly instructed the jury, and the Sueprior Court affirmed the conviction.
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Read the Opinion: Commonwealth v. Wise