On Friday three inmates accused of major felonies escaped from the Orange County Men’s Jail, located 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles in the Santa Ana area. The three men were in custody pending pre-trial proceedings and trial for unrelated charges of murder, kidnapping, and torture. An area-wide manhunt is now underway.

The Orange County Sheriff announced the escapes today. The Sheriff’s Office has determined that the inmates escaped by cutting through half-inch steel bars, climbing through a sewage pipe, and using bed sheets tied together as a rope to climb down four stories.

While the charges that the inmates faced are certainly serious, their act of escape may also meaningfully lengthen their sentences. Under California law, escaping from a jail when facing felony charges is itself a felony (although a prosecutor has discretion to charge the offense as a misdemeanor). Escape is defined as

  • “an unlawful departure”
  • “from the limits of an inmate’s custody”
  • by an individual lawfully in custody.

People v. Gallegos (1974). Conviction of “escape” can result in a prison sentence of 16 months, two years, or three years, depending on the decision of the sentencing judge.

An escape attempt for inmates who have yet to face trial will also likely impact their upcoming trial. This is because prosecutors are given wide latitude to show evidence of the defendant’s conduct that indicates “consciousness of guilt.” That is, assuming a judge does not determine that the incident would unfairly prejudice the jury against the defendant, a prosecutor can show evidence of the escape to demonstrate that the defendant knew he or she was guilty and wanted to escape the prospect of conviction at trial. Fleeing from police or otherwise avoiding capture are other examples of conduct by an accused that can frequently be used at trial to show consciousness of guilt.

As the search for the three inmates continues, check back for updates on the status of the manhunt and on whether they will indeed be charged with and prosecuted for the crime of escape.

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