Are Police Allowed to Commandeer Your Car?

Once upon a time, we debated whether we could legally have radar detectors installed, have gun rack mounted on our vehicles, and other car safety and personalization modifications. Now, we debate which rights the police may have regarding our vehicle. Thanks to the United States v. Russell case, some people want to know whether police can commandeer a vehicle if they are pursuing a criminal. 

Do you have to allow it, or are your rights being violated if they attempt it? We have discovered those answers as we delve into the topic of your fundamental rights.

Your car, your safety, your rights?

A blue flashing roof light on top of a police car
A police car’s flashing blue lights | Carsten Rehder/picture alliance via Getty Images

Throughout history, there have been movies made that show a police officer chasing a bad guy on foot or in their police vehicle, and something happens, forcing the officer to tell someone to step out of their private vehicle. Even the movie Speed showed Keanu Reeves demanding that Glenn Plummer give up his Jaguar.

Some people question the legality of it. Was it just for show to make us see the Jaguar as a cool car, or was it a comedic moment with Plummer worrying over his car payments and car safety? Although it was staged on a Hollywood set, the validity of it is something that we should all keep in the back of our minds. Reeves played the part well, flashing his badge, clearly stating his name, and taking over the driver’s seat. However, allowing Plummer to ride along is not entirely legitimate for safety reasons.

Police commandeering done legally

Now, what happened in the case of the United States v. Russell? Super Lawyers reported that there’s a case happening now where a law officer commandeered a vehicle. The judge presiding over it said, “Public danger must be immediate, imminent, and impending, and the emergency in the public service must be extreme and imperative.” 

Contrarily, according to Snopes, there is “no definitive answer” regarding whether an officer can legally commandeer your vehicle. However, if they choose to demand it, and you deny them the right to use your vehicle, you could face a fine thanks to a law called Posse Comitatus that could end up costing you between $50 and $1,000. This is a law that Reuters mentioned as President Donald Trump prepared to leave the Oval Office.

How likely is police commandeering?

If you are like most of us, you love your vehicle. Do you want to drive around wondering when it will be commandeered?

Posse Comitatus is an act that was signed into federal law on June 18, 1878, by President Rutherford B. Hayes. In some ways, it may be outdated, but there is still some validity to it. The law limits the powers of the federal government to interfere with normal domestic policies.

What this means in this situation is that most often, federal agents will travel in groups so that they will never need to commandeer your vehicle. This does leave the risk of police commandeering more likely within smaller police forces where an officer could be pursuing someone without backup. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, it could happen, but most police have never had reason to try it.

In fact, FBI Agent Steve Kodak told the LA Times: “The reason you wouldn’t do it is the liability issues. The legal liabilities would be so large.” This proves that it could open the police up to insurance liabilities and legal liabilities that most officers would prefer to avoid.

In short, although there is always the chance that you could be driving along and have a police officer approach up your window demanding you step out of the vehicle, you shouldn’t have to worry much. If you happen to find yourself having your vehicle commandeered, there will likely be compensation coming to help you recover the cost of any damages.

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