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Is it illegal to run from the police?

In the wake of the Freddie Gray tragedy, a newspaper article posed the question “Is it Illegal to Run from the Police in America?” The answer to that question in Michigan is yes.

Under Michigan law, MCL 750.81d, an individual who “resists, obstructs or opposes” a police officer who is performing his duties is guilty of a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. The statute does not define the terms “resist” or “oppose” but the term “obstruct” is defined to include “the use or threatened use of physical interference or force or a knowing failure to comply with a lawful command.” The language of this statute is extraordinarily broad and could apply to several types of conduct that one might not consider felonious behavior.

The average person probably believes that a two-year felony for resisting and obstructing a police office would require some sort of physical resistance or altercation with a police officer. This is not the case under Michigan law. A person can be found guilty of resisting and obstructing under Michigan law for conduct that is entirely passive or that does not involve any physical contact with the police. Here are a few examples of the types of conduct that I have seen result in felony resisting and obstructing charges in Michigan:

Example One:

A young man is walking home late one summer night and passes by a loud and rowdy party that has spilled out onto the sidewalk and street. The neighbors had called the police and reported that gun shots had been fired (which turned out to be false.) When the police arrived on the scene the crowd scattered and many people ran from the scene of the party. The young man, uncertain of what was going on, ran from the area as well. The police alleged that when they arrived on they scene they made eye contact with the young man and he immediately turned and started to run away from the scene. The officer gave chase and followed the young man into a wooded area but was not able to catch him. Another officer searching the area found the young man hiding in the woods. The young man was charged with felony resisting and obstructing. While he maintained his innocense, he pled guilty and took advantage of a diversion program so he could avoid the risk of having a felony on his record.

Example Two:

After spending a weekend with his son, a father drives his son back to his mother's apartment which is in a low-income housing development. The father is black and is driving a 2012 Camaro. The police allege that the Camaro's headlights were not on and that it had illegal lighting on the grill. The police follow the father into the apartment complex and turn on there overhead lights. The father pulls over to allow the police to pass beleiving they are responding to an emergency in the apartment complex rather than attempting to pull him over. The father then pulls forward slowly and parks his car in a parking space. The police pull up next to him, jump out of their patrol car, pull the father out of the car and handcuff him in front of his fifteen year old son. He is taken to jail, his car is impounded and he is charged with felony resisting and obstructing.

As these examples illustrate, an individual can be arrested and charged with felony resisting and obstructing in Michigan for conduct that most people would not believe was serious enough to warrant a felony charge. In fact, I think many people would be surprised to learn that the conduct described in the two examples above was illegal at all. Because of the overly broad resisting and obstructing statute in Michigan, an individual can be arrested and charged with a felony for interactions with police for behavior that may be constitutionally protected.

What to do if you are stopped by the police?

If you are stopped by police you should be courteous, cooperative and follow their instructions even if you believe them to be unlawful—the courtroom and not the street is the place to contest unlawful actions of police officers. Here are a few general guidelines to follow:

1. Keep your hands where the officer can see them at all times when you are having an interaction with the police from your vehicle. It is best to keep your hands on the steering wheel until the officer advices you otherwise.

2. Ask the officer before you make any movements which might make him or her feel threatened or insecure such as reaching for the glove box, opening the center consel, opening your car door, exiting your vehicle or taking any other action that an officer might perceive as reaching for a weapon or an attempt to hide something illegal.

3. Be courteous and compliant. Address the officer as Sir or Madam and comply with their requests. Here are some examples of requests an officer has a right to make during a routine traffic stop:

  • To demand that you produce a valid driver's license. Failure to comply with a request to produce a driver's license is a misdemeanor in Michigan and is an arrestable offense.
  • To demand that you exit the vehicle during the traffic stop.
  • If the officer has probably cause to believe you are intoxicated he may request that you take a PBT breath test. He may also request that you take field sobriety tests but there is no penalty for declining to participate.

*Complying with an officer's requests does not mean you have to consent to waiver your constitutional rights. For example, this does not mean you have to consent to a search of your person or your vehicle. It also does not mean you have to waive your right to remain silent or make admissions of guilt to a police officer.

4. Do not consent to any search of your person or vehicle. If the officer asks for your permission you may politely refuse to consent. Your refusal should be made clear and unequivocal.

5. Do not make any unnecessary statements to the police that may be used against you later during criminal proceedings. If it is clear that the stop has evolved into something more than a routine traffic stop, advise the officer that you wish to remain silent and would like to exercise your right to a lawyer.

6. If you are placed under arrest do not resist in any manner. Follow all of the officer's instructions and cooperate fully. Something as simple as pulling your hand away when an officer attempts to grab it for the purpose of placing you in handcuffs can be enough for a felony R&O charge.

If you are cited, arrested, charged with a crime or believe you have been the victim of unconstitutional police action you should call a criminal defense attorney at the first opportunity. If you have been arrested or have other criminal law issues please contact us for a free