'Kristie's Law' defeated,
law enforcement pursuit bill advances


By Don Thompson
ASSOCIATED PRESS

April 26, 2005

SACRAMENTO -- A bill to limit high-speed police pursuits to those suspected of committing violent felonies failed Tuesday, but a legislative committee advanced two bills to stiffen penalties for fleeing drivers.

Police organizations adamantly opposed chase restrictions sought for the second year by Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, after the January 2002 death of 15-year-old Kristie Priano.

The Chico teen died when her family's minivan was struck by a 15-year-old girl who was being chased by police because she took her mother's car without permission. Aanestad's bill would have outlawed such chases.

"The police have a responsibility to act in a way that protects the public," her father, Mark Priano, told the Senate Public Safety Committee.

Areas that have prohibited pursuits for traffic offenses or misdemeanors, such as Los Angeles County and Orlando, Fla., have cut deaths without seeing an increase in crime, Aanestad argued.

But a half-dozen law enforcement representatives testified that police often don't know the seriousness of the crime until they stop the fleeing driver. They blamed drivers for chase deaths, not police.

On a 6-0 vote, the committee backed an alternative bill by Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, that boosts penalties for those who flee, along with funding for police training and compensation for innocent victims of chases.

The bill also would promote a statewide program to educate drivers about the stiffer criminal penalties. Chase suspects -- not police officers -- would be liable for other injuries or deaths.

A companion bill, by Sen. Bob Margett, R-Arcadia, would also boost penalties and was passed 5-0 by the committee.

"One person a week dies in a high speed pursuit in California," said Aanestad -- by far the highest number and per capita rate in the nation. In one recent week, five people died in chases, he said.

There were 7,171 chases resulting in 51 deaths, including 18 innocent bystanders in 2003, according to the most recent statistics available from the California Highway Patrol and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Aanestad estimated that 45 people have died since he introduced his bill last year, where it also failed in committee, and he promised to try again next week and if necessary next year after the bill failed again Tuesday on a 4-1 vote.

"You're looking the other way. You're doing something that is not going to save lives, and it breaks my heart," he told committee members, lashing out at his fellow Republicans whom he said "abandoned the room like rats abandoning a sinking ship."

Law enforcement witnesses said Romero's bill will save lives. Romero, who has authored chase legislation for three years, said her bill has a better chance to become law.