Reflecting on the astonishing tragedy surrounding the rampage of former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner, my thoughts go out to the victims of Dorner’s rampage. In particular, I’m thankful for the heroic efforts of the officers who finally tracked Dorner down and ended his killing spree; even at the cost of an officer’s life, a risk our police forces willingly face every single day.
Given the drawn out nature of the week-long manhunt, I’m reminded of California’s web of Penal Codes designed to deter suspects from evading police; and punish those who do. Centered around section 148(a)(1) of the code, California’s resisting arrest laws are somewhat broader than most people may realize.
Under the Code, individuals are prohibited from resisting, delaying, or otherwise obstructing either a law enforcement officer or an emergency medical technician (EMT) who is performing his/her duty. While the common scenario involves physically resisting arrest in some way, the law also covers non-violent forms of obstruction and applies equally to suspects and the general public.
For example, attempting to interact with a suspect in a way that disregards the orders of a police officer might qualify, as would efforts to slow down an ambulance, attempts to hide your identity during a booking, or seeking to evade police during a pursuit. As these examples demonstrate, the law is rather broad. Generally, doing something that substantively impedes the work of a police officer or EMT may result in a violation of PC 148(a)(1) (though usually not merely disagreeing with an officer or even some amount of yelling back)
Specifically, the prosecution must prove that (1) there was police officer or emergency medical technician lawfully performing, or attempting to perform, his/her duty, (2) that the suspect willfully resisted, delayed, or obstructed that officer or EMT, and (3) that the suspect knew, or reasonably should have known, that the officer or EMT was engaged in those duties.
The primary components of the charge involve two things: the lawful execution of a duty by an officer or EMT and willful obstruction by a suspect. This leads to a couple of obvious defenses. The first is in the nature of self-defense. If an officer is using excessive force or otherwise making an illegal arrest (such as on false charges) you shouldn’t be convicted for resisting the unlawful arrest. Second, merely accidently obstructing an officer doesn’t qualify, the obstruction must be intentional.
Assaulting an Officer
While a violation of California’s resisting arrest law is only chargeable as misdemeanor, specific acts intended to disrupt the work of a police officer might qualify as a felony under related laws. The Penal Code has specific sections dealing with assaulting a police officer, taking an officer’s weapon during an arrest, obstructing the work of other Executive Officers (including police), filing false police reports, and giving false information to a police officer. In addition, California’s vehicle code contains two specific prohibitions on using a vehicle to evade police pursuit.
Finally, California’s Felony Murder rule might allow for a murder charge if someone dies while a suspect is engaged in any felony from the above list (for example during a felony high-speed chase); even if the death was the result of an unfortunate accident.
Protecting your rights
Despite the fact that many of the violations listed above do not qualify as felonies, it’s imperative that you take such charges seriously. If you are convicted of resisting arrest, your future encounters with law enforcement might be much more difficult. It’s understandable that officers will be more cautious (or aggressive) with someone who has a history of resisting arrest and you do not want to face unnecessary police action for the rest of your life. This is particularly true in situations where police are prone to utilize racial profiling or where an officer is inclined to exercise excessive force.
If you are charged with resisting arrest or any of the other crimes we’ve discussed above, it’s imperative that you seek immediate legal help. Contact a qualified attorney now to avoid jeopardizing your legal rights.