It’s a TV trope seen in shows like Luke Cage, The Fugitive, Sense 8, and Prison Break; the main character is locked in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and must break out of prison to prove his innocence. But in real life, proving your innocence doesn’t mean you can just walk away after escaping prison. Guilty or innocent, anyone who escapes from prison in California can face charges under 4530 (PC), and those who escape from jail, house arrest, or other forms of police custody can be charged under 4532 (PC).
What Happens if You Escape From Prison?
What happens to someone who escapes from prison depends on where you were incarcerated. Federal prison escape charges are different than state charges. There are even a handful of countries (specifically, Mexico, Germany, Austria, and Belgium) where breaking out of prison is not illegal, as the desire for liberty is considered a fundamental part of human nature —though those who commit other crimes in their escape attempt can still face charges.
In California, those who escape can be charged under Penal Code 4530 (PC). Escaping prison is a felony, and the penalty for the offense is up to three years and six if the escape utilizes force or violence. By law, the sentence will be consecutive, meaning the convict will not even start serving their time for the escape until after they have completed the term for the initial offense.
While the criminal penalties should be enough to discourage anyone from attempting to break out, the facility itself will typically increase security around someone who has attempted or successfully escaped. Prison officials may punish the individual by reducing their outside “yard” privileges or making them serve time in solitary confinement. As a result, the individual’s prison experience will likely be even more confining and unpleasant.
How Many Years do You Get for Escaping Jail?
Because most people serving time in jail have committed lesser offenses, what happens if you break out of jail is more minor than if you bust out of prison. Under Penal Code 4532 (PC), escaping from jail is always a felony, but the penalties will vary greatly depending on the severity of the original charges and the circumstances of the escape.
Those originally convicted of a misdemeanor can face up to 1 year in jail if the escape was non-violent, but if force or violence was used, the sentence could go up to 6 years. If the individual was convicted of a felony, the penalties would be the same as those for 4530 (PC), meaning up to three years for a non-violent escape or six years if violence or force was used.
But What if You Were Actually Innocent?
If an innocent man escapes from prison or jail and then turns himself in to the police or prosecutors as soon as he uncovers all the evidence he needs to prove his case, he’ll immediately be put behind bars again because under 4530 and 4532 (PC), escaping is a separate offense. He will not even be automatically exonerated of the first charges, as the evidence has to be analyzed, evaluated, and brought before a judge who then decides if there’s enough proof to warrant his release, resentencing, or a new trial.
During this period, he will be put back in custody while he waits to be tried and sentenced under 4530 (PC) and to hear the judge’s ruling on his initial offense. It could take months before the judge makes a decision, and if she orders a new trial, he’ll even have to wait in jail or prison until it is completed.
Just like when facing charges the first time, those who have been granted a new trial will benefit greatly by having a top lawyer fight on their behalf. The attorney can make arguments to the DA and judge on their client’s behalf, ensure their rights are protected, and, if any of the defendant’s rights were violated the first time around, the lawyer could use this to prove that their client deserves to be free.
Can an Innocent Person Still be Charged For Escaping?
Unfortunately, under 4530 (PC), escaping prison or jail is a criminal offense not directly tied to whether or not someone is guilty of the initial act. The prosecutor can choose not to file charges related to an innocent person’s escape, but if they do, the innocent party could still be sentenced for breaking out.
While many people would assume the DA would choose against filing these charges against someone who was wrongfully convicted, it is a complicated issue because they also need to avoid sending the message that escaping is ok as long as you don’t deserve to be behind bars. If anyone was injured during the escape, the prosecutor would almost certainly choose to file charges, no matter how grave the original wrongful conviction was.
The Best Defense Starts Early
Obviously, prison and jail escapes are relatively rare in real life, and, in most cases, escapees don’t go on to prove their innocence. Even so, the idea of a wrongly convicted person escaping prison to prove their innocence is a compelling story and an interesting legal concept, which is why it is so frequently used in movies and TV shows.
In reality though, it’s not the best idea, so you should always do whatever you can to prove your innocence during the initial trial —including working with an experienced criminal attorney with a good track record handling cases like yours.
If you have been accused of any criminal charge, including escaping from prison or jail or attempting to break someone out of police custody during a riot, please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss.