An Indianapolis police officer pulled over Christopher Cowans after he thought Cowans was being evasive by pulling through a gas station and coming out the other side to get away from the officer, who was following him. As the officer was doing some paperwork, Cowans pulled away and led police on a low speed “chase” for six minutes.
Cowans claimed he drove away to get into a better lighted spot, because he had seen several stories on the news of officers having violent encounters with unarmed black males. He said he saw on the news citizens are allowed to drive to a well-lit area before stopping if they fear for their safety. However, the officer who was following him said he drove by several well-lit places before he stopped.
Cowans tendered a jury instruction before his trial as to a mistake of fact, characterizing his belief that people being stopped by police if they feared for their safety could drive until they found a public lighted place to surrender. However, the trial court dismissed his instruction and he was found Cowans guilty of the Level 6 felony. He appealed.
The trial court said it was not reasonable for Cowans to believe he could drive to a well-lit spot to surrender, which is why it dismissed Cowans’ claim. However, the COA said it wanted to focus on another element of the jury instruction case, that his claim was a mistake of law, not fact.
The COA said the mistake of fact defense would be appropriate if Cowans said he thought the flashing lights behind him were a tow truck, or if he thought the lights were directed at another vehicle or if he did not see them at all.
“Assuming that Cowans made a mistake, it would be a mistake of law – he thought that there was a legal principle that gave him the right to drive to a location that he considered safer. A mistaken fact regarding what the law says is still a mistake of law. Thus, Cowan’s argument is unavailing,” Judge John Baker wrote for the panel.
The COA also took time in this case to define fleeing and what a driver should do when being pulled over. “A person who drives to a location of greater safety for her or the officer, intending only to be in a location of greater safety for her or the officer, is not ‘fleeing’ from the police,” Baker wrote. He later wrote, “We believe that a defendant charged with resisting law enforcement by fleeing by vehicle would be entitled, if he so requested, to have a jury instruction regarding the definition of the word ‘flee.’”
Baker wrote juries are the only ones who can decide whether a driver was making it harder on police officers when signaled to pull over. The determination requires “myriad facts.”
“So we reiterate that a driver does not have full discretion to choose to stop anywhere. But it would be equally absurd to hold that drivers have zero discretion to choose the location of a stop; whether the driver exercises that very limited discretion reasonably should be a question of fact for the jury,” Baker concluded.
The case is Christopher Cowans v. State of Indiana, 49A05-1508-CR-1196.