Rules of the Road

Here’s a new one for the list of myths about traffic safety and enforcement

A police office on the side of the road as he writes a ticket.
A police office on the side of the road as he writes a ticket. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Question: If you were pulled over and you had to pull into a church parking lot is it legal for the officer to arrest you on church property?

Answer: Back when I was a kid, when we played tag we’d often designate a base; let’s say it was the tetherball pole. As long as you were touching the pole, the person who was “it” couldn’t tag you. In present day United States we don’t have a legal equivalent to “base” in the game of tag. If you could travel back in time 800 years and get yourself to England, you might be able to benefit from the sanctuary laws at that time that would allow a criminal to seek temporary refuge at a church. But 800 years ago in England you wouldn’t have been driving in the first place.

Actually, the idea of sanctuary, or seeking refuge from prosecution dates back thousands of years to Hebrew, Greek, Roman and Christian cultures. Originally, a city of refuge was a place where a person who had accidentally killed someone could find refuge from anyone seeking revenge. Greeks and Romans used temples as places of refuge, and that was continued in early Christian societies. In these ancient cultures sanctuary had legal status and the consequences of violating it were steep for the avenger, soldier or whoever was trying to get to the person seeking refuge.

Given that there are several thousand years of history around churches and temples providing sanctuary to those fleeing from arrest (or worse), it might seem reasonable to think that churches can still provide legal sanctuary. Add to that the stories we regularly see in the news about churches providing refuge to undocumented immigrants and you’d be forgiven for expecting that you could find legal protection from prosecution by getting yourself to a church.

Modern-day sanctuary at a church is pretty much exclusive to issues around immigration, not traffic violations. And there isn’t any law that actually sanctions it. When a church takes in immigrants to help them avoid deportation, it’s done because of the values of the church, not because there is actual legal protection. Immigration agents have been reluctant to make arrests in churches, but I’m guessing that’s because of perception in the community rather than prohibition written into the law.

Even a thousand years ago when churches offered legal sanctuary, it wasn’t automatic. You had to make an appeal to the church. In today’s legal framework I’m reasonably confident that if you sought refuge at a church because you were about to be arrested for DUI or some other traffic violation, you would not be presented the sanctuary you were seeking. The best case scenario might be that the person who answers the door would offer you a prayer; maybe along the lines of, “May God be with you as you contemplate your actions in jail.”

For a moment, let’s imagine the less likely scenario; that after you pulled into the parking lot a church leader or parishioner ran out and stepped between you and the officer, claiming that they were offering you sanctuary because you made it to the church property, and then escorted you into the building. The state of Washington would consider that action to be “Rendering Criminal Assistance,” which includes harboring or concealing a person to prevent or hinder their arrest. There is no “church property” exception. The law doesn’t give you a free pass for pulling your car onto church property during a traffic stop. Seeking sanctuary from a traffic stop in a church parking lot is one of many myths out there about traffic safety and enforcement, along with “red cars get more tickets,” “It’s better to not wear a seatbelt and be thrown from the crash than to wear the seatbelt and get trapped in a car” or “I’m a better-than-average driver.”

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.