Can the police really commandeer your car?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 6 2005 6:50 PM

Can the Police Commandeer Your Car?

What else could they ask you to do?

Yo, hand over that Miata
Click image to expand.
Yo, hand over that Miata

A pilot from central Kansas almost died last Friday after being asked by the local sheriff to help out with a manhunt. He had just located the suspect from his Cessna 150 airplane when a gunshot fired from below hit him in the forehead. The pilot (who somehow managed to avoid serious injury) has told police, "You need me again, you call me." Could he have refused to help the cops or to let them use his vehicle?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

It depends on the local laws, but in many places the answer would be no. Many states and cities have laws on the books that make it a misdemeanor offense to refuse aid to a police officer. And legal precedents suggest that the obligation to help out with an arrest extends to giving cops the use of your plane, your car, or anything else that might come in handy.

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Policemen used to commandeer cars more often. As recently as 40 years ago, New York City cops on foot would routinely flag down taxis when they needed to bring arrested criminals back to the station house.

In the 1920s, a New York cop hopped on the running board of a yellow taxi and demanded that its driver chase another car. The cabbie took off, but another car cut in front of him, and he was killed in the crash. A legal battle ensued over the extent of the obligation to aid a police officer and over the question of whether the cabbie's widow deserved payment under workers'-compensation law.

The New York state court referred to English common law in its discussion of the case. At least as far back as the 13th century, the "hue and cry" system compelled private citizens to join in the pursuit of a criminal, and the Statute of Winchester from 1285 even requires that every man keep appropriate instruments on hand, in case he's called to action. Among the tools listed are "a Breastplate of Iron, a Sword, a Knife, and a Horse."

The court ruled that the taxi was analogous to the horse mentioned in the Statute of Winchester: "The horse has yielded to the motorcar as an instrument of pursuit and flight. … We may be sure that the man who failed to use his horse … would have had to answer to the King." Courts in other states with similar laws have often cited this decision.

Another important case involved a store-owner in Alabama who, in the 1890s, refused to help a police officer make an arrest because he feared for his life. The court ruled that a citizen cannot refuse to aid a police officer simply because the request involves some form of danger: "The fact that there is danger involved is the very thing which calls for and makes obedience a duty." Provided that the police officer has not made a reckless or unreasonable request for aid, a citizen must comply.

What happens if you refuse to help the cops, and you live in a state with one of these laws on the books? You'll probably have to pay a fine.

Explainer thanks Edward Mamet, formerly of the New York City Police Department; Michael Levine, formerly of the Drug Enforcement Administration; Allan Barnes of the University of Alaska; and Michael Lyman of Columbia College of Missouri.

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