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Bill to limit high-speed vehicle pursuits introduced

Second measure would up penalty for fleeing

By QUINCY CROMER/The Daily Journal
March 23, 2005

For the second year in a row, a bill has been introduced to limit high-speed vehicle pursuits, and discussions about current pursuit policies have been triggered across the state.

Introduced by Sens. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, and Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, Senate Bill 718 states that it is designed to eliminate unnecessary risks from vehicle pursuits and to ensure that these chases are conducted in the safest and most effective way throughout the state.

"Kristie's Bill was introduced for a pure and simple reason: to protect the most vulnerable and innocent victims from being injured or killed as a result of a high speed pursuit," Aanestad said after introducing the bill.

California has consistently led the nation in the past 20 years in fatalities from crashes involving motor vehicle pursuits, according to information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with 59 reported deaths during high-speed pursuits from 2001 to 2003.

Ukiah Police Department Capt. Dan Walker -- who started with UPD in 1984 -- said he cannot remember any incident where someone was injured or killed during a vehicle pursuit locally. If a new policy regarding vehicle pursuits were enacted in California, Walker said UPD would have to review the law and implement it and change local practices.

"We would have to see how the law is written and what the policies are and adjust our practices and policies," Walker said.

The UPD pursuit policy directs officers to weigh the seriousness of the crime, nature of the suspect, safety of the public, weather, traffic and many other conditions when considering pursuit.

Pursuits are to be terminated when the location of the suspect is no longer known, an officer's vehicle is damaged or if the distance between an officer and the suspect is so great that the pursuit would last for an unreasonable time or distance, according to the policy.

"Pursuits of suspected or known violators of the law expose innocent citizens, police officers and fleeing violators to serious injury or death," the UPD policy states. "The primary purpose of this policy is to provide officers guidance in balancing the safety of the public and themselves against law enforcement's duty to apprehend violators of the law."

Officers are also instructed to observe the speed of a pursuit for safety reasons and terminate if directed by a supervisor or if other motorists are at risk.

Directions are also provided for pursuit intervention where an officer can attempt to stop the fleeing suspect by ramming or boxing in the suspect's vehicle.

According to the California Highway Patrol, of the nearly 6,000 police pursuits reported statewide in 2001, nearly 900 of the pursued vehicles were involved in collisions.

"The vast majority of pursuits usually last under a minute. Sometimes they initiate and break it off or they end in just a few minutes," said Tom Marshall, CHP spokesman.

The measure is named after Kristie Priano, a 15-year-old Chico student who was killed during a pursuit in January, 2002. The bill has been referred to committees on public safety and rules to examine the impacts of such a measure and may be acted on on or after Saturday.

Aanestad introduced a similar bill last year restricting high-speed pursuits, but it died in committee after law enforcement agencies argued it was too restrictive.

"Kristie's Law' supports putting the safety of the public and the officers themselves above catching the fleeing suspect. Policy must be followed because we cannot rely on fleeing suspects who must be punished to the fullest extent of the law to care about safety," the "Kristie's Law" Web site states.

Aanestad recently met with leaders of statewide law enforcement organizations, asking for support and help to draft the bill by creating comprehensive pursuit policies in California.

Motor vehicle pursuits present inescapable and inherent risks and it is a primary duty of law enforcement agencies to protect the public from personal injury, death or property damage, SB 718 states.

"Tragedy often brings about change. Change is difficult for everyone, especially for officers who are trained to make our lives safer. Making our lives safer is what police do and that's why we support the hardworking officers who risk their own lives every day," the "Kristie's Law" Web site states.

Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, R-Monrovia, also introduced a bill related to high-speed vehicle pursuits, but has taken a different approach with his measure.

Assembly Bill 305 would increase the punishment for intentionally evading or fleeing an officer, making the offense a felony with a sentence of up to four years in state prison and fines up to $2,000, the bill states.

When a death occurs during a high-speed pursuit, the responsible party could be punished with up to 15 years in state prison. The measure would also impose a one-year enhancement for any person who causes an accident where someone is injured or property is damaged.

AB 305 was introduced in February and was postponed by committee with Tuesday set as the hearing date for the bill.

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