Can Police Commandeer My Car to Help in a Chase?

What to do if the movie trope becomes your reality in California

By Benjy Schirm

One sunny California day, you’re driving with the top down, hair blowing in the wind, and suddenly there’s an officer standing in front of your car. “Get out of the car! I’m commandeering this vehicle!”

Do you comply—or more pertinently: should you?

Under the laws of California, an adult citizen has the duty or obligation to comply with a law enforcement officer who has proper identification and requests your help in catching or arresting a suspect, re-capturing an escaped arrestee or prisoner, or preventing a crime. If you don’t, you could face a fine of between $50 and $1,000.

This law is called posse comitatus, an old concept applied when police officers didn’t have the proper resources to enforce the law. They would call upon ordinary citizens to apprehend fugitives or catch a fleeing suspect, including the use of citizens’ private property to further these efforts. While the law is old, courts have upheld the principle in modern times. 

In United States v. Russell, the U.S. Supreme Court held, “Extraordinary and unforeseen occasions arise, however, beyond all doubt, in cases of extreme necessity in time of war or of immediate and impending public danger, in which private property may be impressed into the public service, or may be seized and appropriated to the public use, or may even be destroyed without the consent of the owner. … But the public danger must be immediate, imminent, and impending, and the emergency in the public service must be extreme and imperative, and such as will not admit of delay or a resort to any other source of supply, and the circumstances must be such as imperatively require the exercise of that extreme power in respect to the particular property so impressed, appropriated, or destroyed.”

So, just as in the movies, when a cop is chasing down a suspect on foot, they technically have the right to request your car. This could be considered theft under criminal statutes. Under those statutes, however, is a defense of necessity. Necessity requires imminent and substantial danger facing a person or community. State actors also have the defense of exigent circumstances that allow them to enter properties and take control of property if they are in “hot pursuit” of a person committing or having committed a crime. So it all depends on the circumstances. The Russell case, for example, involved three steamboats being used during a rebellion by the government to move troops.

The real issue comes down to what you should do if your property is damaged or destroyed by a state actor after it is commandeered. Under civil law, a citizen could find a remedy under trespass to chattels, or conversion. A chattel is movable personal property, and moving or depriving a person of any property for a substantial amount of time is considered a trespass. Conversion is the taking of someone’s property and damaging it or destroying it in any way. Police departments generally have immunity from being sued unless they act in a negligent way. If an officer takes your car and blows it up at the end of a high-speed chase like in the movies, gross negligence might be obvious.

Should you stop and let the cop take your car? That’s up to you. But in the unlikely situation that your property is commandeered and subsequently destroyed, make sure that you contact a reputable insurance coverage attorney who can make sure that you are compensated.

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