“Escaping” from Washington, D.C.

by Jamison Koehler on November 19, 2009

AlcatrazWhen you hear of someone escaping from prison, you might think of Steve McQueen breaking out of the Nazi prisoner-of-war camp during World War II or Clint Eastwood escaping from Alcatraz.  Or, if you’re younger, you might think of Tim Robbins working his way through the sewer pipe in The Shawshank Redemption.

All three of these escapes would in fact qualify as an “escape” under the D.C. Crimes Code.  But the D.C. Crimes Code also penalizes other, far less dramatic actions.  According to the Code, it is a criminal offense to escape or attempt to escape when confined to a penal institution/facility or when under the lawful custody of a law enforcement officer.   This means escape could include the failure to return to a halfway house.  It could also include fleeing from a police officer after having been placed under arrest.

It is safe to say that the overwhelming number of escapes that are prosecuted in D.C. fall into the category of less dramatic offenses.   When the defendant is charged with fleeing a police officer, the prosecution and defense may disagree on the facts leading up and subsequent to the arrest.  But the real question is a legal one:  What was the defendant’s status at the time of the flight?  Was he or she in fact in custody?  Was custody lawful?

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If the charges allege that the defendant was “escaping” from confinement at a penal institution or facility, the case will likely hinge on evidentiary issues.  The prosecution will probably try to make out its case through prison records showing, for example, that on such-and-such a date the defendant was confined at a particular facility and that on that date the defendant either removed himself from that facility or, without permission, failed to return to the facility at the required time.  The challenge for the defense is to keep those records from being admitted into evidence.  For example, does the prosecution have the right people in court who can introduce those records?

Unless the defendant is a prisoner failing to return from work release, in which case the offense is a misdemeanor, the criminal offense of escape is a felony charge.  The penalty for an escape conviction is a maximum fine of $5,000 fine and/or imprisonment for up to 5 years.

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