So I know this is very silly and obviously hypothetical, but I've wondered about it for a while.

Let's say you aren't doing anything (else) illegal, you don't have anything illegal on you, and you don't have any warrants for your arrest or anything. And let's say we're talking about this occurring in the USA.

Now let's say there's a cop on the street and you're walking by him, and suddenly you yell "Oh shit! The police!" and then bolt down the street in the opposite direction, such that they clearly heard you say that and see you running.

Is that illegal? First, assuming that the cop doesn't chase you. Is it just illegal to "provoke" a cop like this?

Then let's assume the cop is intrigued and does chase you. Is it illegal to keep running? Would it make a difference whether he yelled for you to stop or not?

  • 6
    One aspect of your scenario is that you might just be misleading the police into believing that you've committed a crime, and therefore, you'd be wasting their time for no reason. I'd be afraid that one might get in trouble for that for the same reason that you get in trouble for making prank calls to the police. None of the answers in this thread seem to be focusing on that aspect of the scenario. Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 19:59

4 Answers 4


Bobstro gave the practical answer, that it's a stupid idea for many reason.

This is for the US in general, states may have laws that say otherwise.

It is not illegal to provoke someone or a government official (police), it's done all the time in protest (not riots).

It is not illegal to run from a cop who has not detained you in any way, or has not issued an order to you. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that people not suspected of criminal activity can ignore a police officer who approaches them. Wisconsin has even said, that even after a police officer knocked on your window, you can still leave. However, it may give probable cause, especially with the statement of "Oh shit! The police!"

It IS illegal to run from a cop who has detained you or issued a lawful order. The order "STOP" is a lawful order, and from that point on, you are committing a crime if you do not stop.

For your case, check out the NYTimes article "Supreme Court Roundup; Flight Can Justify Search By Police, High Court Rules".

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    Agreed, I think that's the most important point: running away in itself gives the police probable cause to detain and search you. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 5:51
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    Ah, never mind -- I see the Wisconsin ruling presents the standard as a "show of authority sufficient to give rise to the belief in a reasonable person that the person is not free to leave." I expect the SCOTUS case has something similar.
    – apsillers
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 13:28
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    The Wisconsin case is rather unusual, because the cop did not turn on his emergency lights and had no legal reason to detain the suspect (so this was actually a police-friendly ruling). If you get pulled over normally, I very much doubt you can just drive off.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 23:24
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    @Kevin The Wisconsin case was more to represent that the police have to some how make you aware that you are free to leave and that you are detained. Majority of the time, you actually are free to leave. They can walk up to you and ask you questions, but that does not mean that you are detained or not free to leave. In a traffic stop, you have already been detained by the fact of the traffic stop (PA v Mimms and Michigan v Long). So that would not apply to what the OP asked.
    – Jdahern
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 9:21
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    @Zymus, If the police officer has not given a lawful order, yes. In reality you do that all the time. When driving in front of an officer, you are ignoring the fact that he is approaching you. If you're not suspected of a crime and they give a lawful order (like stop), the real question is if the order is lawful. I would assume that it would be real hard to prove that the order was not lawful at the time. The guy in Wisconsin was never given a lawful order to stay or stop, and that is why he was detained legally. (I disagree with the fact that a reasonable person would feel free to leave)
    – Jdahern
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 17:13

Short Answer

The facts described by the OP do not, alone, constitute a crime.

However, they are likely to begin a chain of causal events that can lead to a crime following a natural sequence of escalatory stages if the "suspect" does not change their behavior to stop the progression.

Let's analyze how this might happen...


Stage One: "Reasonable Suspicion"

Your behavior:

[saying] "Oh shit! The police!" and then bolt down the street in the opposite direction, such that they clearly heard you say that and see you running.

might give the officer "reasonable suspicion" to believe you have committed a crime.

Reasonable Suspicion is defined as any "articulable reason" to suspect you have committed a crime based on the facts and rational inferences from those facts based on the officer's experience and judgment. In other words, anything more than just "a hunch." In this case, the officer might decide your behavior meets that threshold and would likely be affirmed by the court because your described behavior is more consistent with criminals than non-criminals. (See this question and answer for more details.)

Stage Two: "Detainment"

With that reasonable suspicion, the officer has lawful authority to "detain" you for further questioning and investigation to determine if there is "probable cause" to conclude you have committed a crime and then, if so, to arrest you.

Stage Three: a "Lawful Order"

If the officer decides to detain you, he can issue you a "lawful order" to stop running away simply by saying "Stop! Police!" loud enough for you to hear it.

Stage Four: a Crime

Willfully refusing a lawful order by a peace officer.

If you continue running away after being issued a lawful order to stop, you have committed a real crime and can be lawfully arrested at that time and successfully prosecuted for that alone despite the absence of any other criminal offense.

Conclusions and Recommendations

In general, it is wise to avoid unnecessarily provoking the police. Or giving them reasonable suspicion to detain you if you can avoid it. It is very difficult to imagine any set of circumstances where it is prudent to "run" from the police. You should consider running from the police extremely serious and dangerous behavior.

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. I am not your attorney. This answer is not legal advice. Please consult an attorney to obtain proper legal advice.

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    Where did you get the parts in quotation marks?
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 23:03
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    @HDE226868. They are legal terms which originated from judicial opinions in appellate court cases. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 23:05
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    Defined where? I'd like to see the full definitions.
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 23:06
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    @HDE226868 They're from seminal U.S.C. 4th amendment cases. See law.stackexchange.com/a/498/248
    – user248
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 23:13
  • Stage four: crime. So what do you call it (Stage 5) when the one arrested gets to court and is acquitted, determined innocent of the "lawful order"? Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 1:59

There's a video of a night-time police stop of a 17-year-old driver in Michigan for flashing the officer with high beams. The officer initially states his intention to only give the driver a warning. Unfortunately, the kid decided to play the "am I free to go?" line rather than cooperate, and the officer decided to escalate the situation. At one point, the officer pulls the kid out and attempts a take-down. The kid panics, breaks free, and runs. The officer pursues and eventually kills the kid with his gun. Here's a link to news coverage.

Regardless of whether the actual act of running is legal, this case suggests that it could cost you your life. The officer in this case faced no criminal consequences from his actions.

[edit]The question(s) do not take into consideration of outside factors, such as the chase itself. The answer to the question of legality surely depends on jurisdiction, which is not provided in the hypothetical situation as described.

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    -1 This has nothing whatsoever to do with the question. Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 18:26
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    If a minor was killed by police there must be mainstream media coverage of it. I wouldn't post potentially offensive links without ample warning. I would also think that if you can't find a "SFW" account of the event (along with the relevant legal consequences) then the accuracy of the story itself is in such doubt it probably doesn't belong as an answer.
    – feetwet
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 19:01
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    The OP opens by framing it as silly and hypothetical. I am referencing a true story where the "perpetrator" thought, rightfully or wrongfully, that he was in the right. In the end, he is dead. I think it is irresponsible to answer the question of legality without pointing out the possible dangers of encountering an officer who does not hold the same opinions. The kid obviously read or viewed discussions such as these.
    – bobstro
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 19:07
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    The question explicitly states "Let's say you aren't doing anything (else) illegal" and this answer starts with "flashing the officer with high beams". This anecdote has nothing to do with the answer, I totally can not comprehend how this gained an upvote. Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 20:28
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    @bobstro: I'm confused what you mean by "play the 'am I free to go?' game." Are you saying it's a bad idea to ask a cop if you're free to go, or was he asking it in an obnoxious manner?
    – user541686
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 22:47

Quite a few states have laws against things like "interfering with a peace officer" or "obstructing a peace officer".

This action might or might not fall within that statute, but there's enough variation in wording between states that it's impossible to say in general. It can also depend on some other parts of the situation, such as whether the police officer in question is busy doing something else at at the time or not.

In particular some states' laws include wording about the obstruction involving violence toward the peace officer, such as (Colorado):

A person commits obstructing a peace officer, firefighter, emergency medical services provider, rescue specialist, or volunteer when, by using or threatening to use violence, force, physical interference, or an obstacle, such person knowingly obstructs, impairs, or hinders the enforcement of the penal law or the preservation of the peace by a peace officer, acting under color of his or her official authority;

So, in Colorado the judge/jury would have to decide whether (for example) your action could be construed as creating/using an obstacle to the police officer performing his duty.

In Illinois, however, the law doesn't include similar language limiting such obstruction to things like violence:

A person who knowingly resists or obstructs the performance by one known to the person to be a peace officer, firefighter, or correctional institution employee of any authorized act within his or her official capacity commits a Class A misdemeanor.

So, in Illinois, there's a lot better chance that you could be convicted, even though your action was relatively indirect and non-violent.

In at least some states, the act of running away has been ruled sufficient to qualify as obstruction but at least as far as I can see, it's usually running away when an officer has approached that person. For example, Nebraska law uses the wording:

A person commits the offense of obstructing a peace officer, when, by using or threatening to use violence, force, physical interference, or obstacle, he or she intentionally obstructs, impairs, or hinders (a) the enforcement of the penal law or the preservation of the peace by a peace officer or judge acting under color of his or her official authority or (b) a police animal assisting a peace officer acting pursuant to the peace officer's official authority.

However, Corey Richter was convicted of violating this law based only on running away from the police:

Richter had been staying with his grandmother who, on October 20, 1986, asked the police to remove him from her home. Officers Mike Brunz and Douglas French, both in uniform, went to the grandmother's home in a marked police car to so do. As they approached the home, they could hear Richter arguing with and cursing and yelling at his mother. Officer French told Richter they were going to take him to a youth shelter for the evening. Richter ran away as the officers were escorting him to their automobile. Officer French then pursued Richter on foot, but lost sight of him. The officers found Richter approximately an hour later near his grandmother's home. Upon seeing the officers Richter started to flee again, but returned peacefully after his mother yelled for him to stop. No physical restraints were ever placed on Richter, nor did Richter ever resort to force.

[Ruling on appeal]

I'd rate it as extremely risky at best. At best, you'd probably be arrested and spend a few days/nights in jail, but not convicted. On the other hand, it could pretty easily result in a conviction, and the fact that the state's law has wording about using violence (or similar) wouldn't necessarily provide you with any protection.

  • Are you able to list the sources for your citations?
    – Pat W.
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 19:13
  • How is saying "Oh shit! The police!" and running "interfering or obstructing a peace officer" if you are not suspected of criminal activity and have not done anything outside of that. In the case of Richter, he was actively engaged with the police and if he was going to an youth shelter, he was most likely not free to leave at that time. The op situation, the person is free to leave until the officer persuse the person, or give indication otherwise. The information you gave is good information BTW
    – Jdahern
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 20:18
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    @Jdahern: Bottom line is that anything that could be interpreted as preventing a police officer from doing something else he should be right then can (arguably) be interpreted as violating this law. If there's even a chance he might witness anything from a murder to somebody jay-walking when he was instead chasing you, then your action obstructed him from dealing with that other problem. As far as Richter goes: I have to disagree--his already being engaged and/or not free to leave might qualify for something like resisting/evading arrest. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 20:31
  • It looks to me like it's irrelevant to the question of whether he was obstructing a peace officer though. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 20:32
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    @Jdahern If my kids are trying to eat dinner, and I pull out Candyland and set it on the living room floor and start setting up the pieces, am I obstructing my kids from eating dinner? Technically, no - they have a directive and should follow that directive (eat). Realistically, they're human and will follow this distraction. If I were a cop and someone saw me and fled, I would sure as heck want to know why, so you have obstructed my previous directive (observe, protect, etc.) since I now am following you to figure out why you're fleeing from me. That's how I would see it.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 20:57

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