The Superior Court of Pennsylvania held in a recent opinion that in a pre-arrest situation, a defendant is not in official custody for purposes of the Escape statute where the police officer merely orders the defendant to “stop and get on the ground” during pursuit. The police officer in Commonwealth v. Woody, 2007 Pa. Super. 368 (2007), followed the defendant in his car after ordering him to “take it elsewhere” when he was supposedly having a sexual encounter in a car. Then, when the defendant failed to use turn signals while driving, and the officer decided to pull him over. The defendant failed to follow any of the officer’s commands to pull over or stop, and was never physically stopped when the officer ordered him to do so. The officer finally apprehended the defendant on foot.

Under the Escape statute, 18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 5121, a person is guilty of escape if he “unlawfully removes himself from official detention or fails to return to official detention following temporary leave granted for a specific purpose or limited period.”

“Official detention” means “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 . . . .” 18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 5121(e).

The Court’s opinion distinguished this situation from the case of Commonwealth v. Stewart, where the defendant was actually physically stopped in his vehicle, the police officer approached with his weapon drawn, and the officer instructed the defendant to turn off the car and place his hands on the dashboard. The court stated that it was the officer’s show of authority over the defendant for the momentary period that he was stopped that suggested he was officially detained in Stewart. Here, there was no moment where the defendant was stopped as a result of police authority to suggest he was officially detained, only until after he was physically apprehended.

To read more about this interesting nuance of the crime of Escape, click here for the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s opinion. By the way, the Commonwealth has requested reargument, so stay tuned for an update!