The criminal offense of fleeing legal custody without authority or consent.
In order for an individual who has been accused of escape to be convicted, all elements of the crime must be proved. Such elements are governed by the specific language of each state statute. The general common-law principles may be incorporated within a statute, or the law may depart from them in various ways. Federal statutes also make it a crime to escape from federal custody.
Ordinarily, the crime of escape is committed either by the prisoner or by the individual who has the responsibility for keeping the prisoner in custody. The custodian of the prisoner is not ordinarily a warden for the entire prison, but is generally the person who has immediate responsibility for guarding the prisoner. Certain states currently punish negligent guards administratively, such as by divesting them of their rank or seniority, or by firing them. Criminal punishment is generally reserved for guards who actively cooperate in facilitating a prisoner's escape.
An escape takes place when the prisoner is able to remove himself or herself from the lawful control of an authorized custodian. An individual can be found guilty of escape even in the event that his or her initial arrest was wrongful, since an unlawful arrest must properly be argued in court. The theory is that in order for the process of justice to operate in an orderly manner, a prisoner must not be given the privilege of determining whether or not he or she should be confined. If an arrest is totally unlawful, however, an individual cannot be guilty of escape. This might occur, for example, if a store security guard has no grounds to arrest a shoplifter but does so anyway.
In order to prove that a criminal escape took place, it is ordinarily unnecessary to show that the accused party was actually confined within prison walls. Once an arrest has taken place, the prisoner cannot leave of his or her own volition. Frequently, the degree of the crime is increased when the escape is from a particular kind of confinement. For example, the law might deal more harshly with an individual who escapes from armed prison guards while working on a chain gang than with an individual who runs away while an arresting officer interrogates witnesses. In other jurisdictions, the degree of criminal escape is dependent upon the nature of the crime that initially precipitated the prisoner's confinement.
It is ordinarily necessary to prove that an escaped prisoner was actually attempting to evade legal confinement. For example, if the prisoner went to the wrong place by mistake, he or she will probably not be found guilty of a criminal escape.
Other crimes are related to escape, such as the offense of aiding escape, which is committed by a person who, for example, smuggles a prisoner out of jail. Ordinarily a conviction for aiding escape is punishable by a sentence for the number of years specified by the criminal statute.
In some states it is a separate crime to harbor or conceal an escaped prisoner. To obtain a conviction against the individual accused of this crime, it must be shown that the individual believed that he or she was aiding an escaped prisoner with the intent to help him or her get clear of lawful custody. It does not constitute a defense to assert that the prisoner never should have been arrested.
Prison breach is an escape committed through the use of force and is more heinous than simple escape. It is not a separate crime, however, and the state may regard it as a more serious degree of criminal escape.
An attempt to commit escape or any of the related crimes is punishable, even though such an attempt might not have been successful.
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