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Court ruling reverses ‘fleeing arrest’ conviction

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(The Center Square) — The Virginia Court of Appeals released a ruling reversing a Lynchburg court’s conviction of a man for fleeing arrest, a class 1 misdemeanor.

An officer was seeking to arrest him, and the defendant fled. But in Virginia, that doesn’t necessarily qualify legally as “fleeing arrest.”

Virginia may be the only state with a physical proximity clause in its fleeing-from-arrest law, according to the majority opinion of appeals court Judge Stuart Raphael. And that is why Raphael chose to strike the defendant’s conviction on that count.

The incident occurred in January 2022, when a Lynchburg police officer went to arrest Jessi Ryan Hackett on a felony arrest warrant. The officer found Hackett outside a “residence.” Hackett saw him when he was “about 20 to 25 yards away,” at least 60 feet, and bolted.

A person can be convicted of fleeing arrest in Virginia when that individual knows they are being pursued by law enforcement – either because an officer has physically tried to arrest them or the intention for arrest is otherwise communicated – and the officer has the “legal authority” and the “immediate physical ability” to make the arrest.

The majority opinion interpreted 20 yards as beyond an officer’s “immediate physical ability,” rendering Hackett’s previous misdemeanor conviction overturned.

President of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, Jason Johnson, believes this interpretation needlessly endangers the public and officers of the law and departs from the statute’s original intent.

“Individuals who flee police while they are attempting to make an arrest present a significant danger to themselves, pursuing officers, and the public in general. Some police departments restrict their officers from engaging in foot pursuits for this reason,” Johnson told The Center Square.

“Because of this danger, the criminal law should hold those who flee from arrest accountable. The Virginia General Assembly should clarify the statute next session to make sure it can be applied as intended in the future.“

But Brad Haywood, founder of Justice Forward Virginia, an advocacy group for criminal justice reform, found the ruling unsurprising, maintaining that majority opinion upheld and expressed the intent of the law.

“All that opinion did was affirm the law as it has stood in Virginia for 20 years,” Haywood told The Center Square.

“The law … is by no means an outlier among other states — many other states don’t even criminalize running from the police.”

Haywood explained that while resisting arrest laws address the harm of a potential altercation between law enforcement and the suspect, fleeing arrest laws differ.

“Running away may delay the court process, but it doesn’t place anyone in danger,” said Haywood.

The minority opinion, though dissenting from the majority on several points, did agree that the distance of 60 feet between the officer and the defendant did not meet the criteria of “immediate physical ability,” and so agreed with the ultimate decision of the ruling.

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