People who lead police on high-speed chases cannot be prosecuted if they are pursued by an officer in an unmarked police car, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Under state law, a pursuit must be initiated by a “uniformed law enforcement officer in an appropriately marked law enforcement vehicle.”
The state’s highest court sided with a District Court judge who dismissed a charge against a man in San Juan County because a sheriff’s deputy who pursued him drove a sport utility vehicle with a siren and flashing red and blue lights in its grill but no law enforcement decals or lettering.
Justices also upheld a Court of Appeals decision to reverse a man’s conviction in Curry County because a sheriff’s deputy involved in the chase drove an unmarked SUV and wore civilian clothing — shirt, tie, dress slacks and a badge — rather than a patrol uniform.
Police need to display “decals or other prominent and visible insignia” on their vehicles for drivers to know they are being pursued by law enforcement, the court ruled.
“Reiterating the definition of ‘mark’ as that which provides identification, we cannot conclude that lights or a siren are unique in identifying a police officer’s vehicle where emergency vehicles, tow trucks, and even civilian vehicles may be equipped with these same signaling devices,” according to the court’s majority opinion.
“Moreover, while a police officer’s badge is a distinctive accessory that identifies a police officer, it is not, standing alone, a uniform,” the majority concluded.
Aggravated fleeing a law enforcement officer is a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison.