We’ve all seen them, those movie scenes where a police officer in pursuit of a suspect approaches a car, flashes his badge and tells the driver to get out.
Personally I’ve probably seen dozens of such scenes but don’t ever recall seeing one where the driver refuses.
But is that because it’s illegal to refuse or because it’s just not convenient to the plot?
A Different Kind of PC
While the sight of a police officer emerging onto a crowded street and commandeering a vehicle to pursue a fleeing suspect makes for great cinema it’s actually something that rarely happens in real life.
Most large police forces, after all, have more vehicles than they know what to do with, including some of the most powerful vehicles on the road. So the notion that an officer would need to take your ‘97 Honda Civic to pursue bank robbers stretches credulity to say the least.
Yet, although it is exceedingly rare the fact is it does happen from time to time and the law that allows it – called posse comitatus – can trace its roots to English common law.
Predating the Cowboys
The American legal system has been influenced by a number of European systems that preceded it. Most notably English common law and both Spanish and French civil law. If you zoom the microscope in close enough you can also still find a hint of Roman law in there as well. For the purposes of this article though, its English common law we want to look at because it’s there that posse comitatus has its roots.
Back in medieval times English law required citizens to raise a ruckus if they became aware of a crime being committed in their hamlet or village. This hue and cry was supposed to rouse the sheriff and other civic-minded citizens to get on their horse (sometimes literally) and pursue the bad guy.
By the time of the English Renaissance this obligation of citizens to help the sheriff pursue the (alleged) bad guy had been pretty much etched in stone. To the extent that most large towns had designated groups of young men called the “posse comitatus” who were tasked with aiding the local sheriff in pursuing ne’er do wells.
Coming to America
This notion that citizens have a responsibility to aid law enforcement in the pursuit of suspected criminals made its way across the Atlantic and became a recognized aspect of American law as well.
It was particularly important on the Western frontier where spaces were vast, criminals were plentiful and the resources of law enforcement were stretched to the limit. Notable examples of the frontier posse included the 400-man posse that tracked down several members of the Jesse James gang.
Into the Modern Age
The Posse Comitatus Act was passed by Congress in 1878 and put strict limits on the ability of the government to use the army for law enforcement purposes. But it didn’t put any practical restraints on the ability of sheriffs to raise a posse to aid in manhunts.
One of the most famous examples of a contemporary posse was the one raised in 1977 by the sheriff of Aspen Colorado to pursue escaped, suspected serial killer Ted Bundy. Ordinary citizens were enlisted to show up with their own weapons and search the countryside for Bundy, who was eventually found and returned to custody. (He would escape again a few weeks later and successfully flee the state.)
Real World Examples
There aren’t as many real-world cases of police commandeering private vehicles to facilitate pursuits as movies and TV would have us believe. But there are some. And a few are particularly noteworthy.
- One century-old case where a person refused to cooperate turned out to be instructive. The case involved an Alabama store owner who refused to assist a police officer who needed help subduing a suspect. The store owner felt his life might be in danger if he helped, but the police officer was not sympathetic. The store owner was charged with failing to assist the officer and the court didn’t buy his imminent danger defense. In fact, they rule that the perceived danger actually made it all the more important that the store owner help.
- Three decades later a New York policeman hopped onto the running board of a taxi and ordered the driver to pursue another car that contained a fleeing suspect. The cabbie obeyed but soon after beginning the pursuit he collided with another car and was killed. The widow of the cabbie sued for restitution in a case that became known as Babbington v Yellow Taxi Corporation. The judge in the case ultimately ruled that the police officer was within his right to enlist the help of the driver. Citing nearly 900-year old English common law the judge declared that in medieval times “We may be sure that the man who failed to use his horse … would have had to answer to the King.” and then went on to state that the car was the modern equivalent of the horse.
- In 2005 a sheriff in Kansas commandeered the airplane of local pilot to search for a suspect from the air. The small private plane wound up flying over the suspect who fired on it and wounded the pilot, who somehow managed to land safely. In this case though the pilot retained his sense of humor and told police “If you need me again, call me.”
The Bottom Line
If a police officer approaches you and requests you to aid in the pursuit of a suspected criminal by either acting as a driver or surrendering your vehicle so that the officer can use it, you are legally compelled to obey.
Each state deals with those who refuse to help in slightly different ways. But in most cases the person who declines to assist can be charged with either a Class A or Class B misdemeanor and/or fined anywhere from $50 to $1,000.