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Editorial: Police pursuit law is overdue
Lawmakers should stand firm
Ventura County Star
April 14, 2004—Last year, The Star Editorial Board asked: "What will it take to change police pursuits?" We were dismayed by the arrogance and disregard the California Highway Patrol exhibited toward the Oxnard family that lost its precious 18-year-old daughter in a police pursuit March 23, 2002.

An investigation by the Ventura County District Attorney's Office concluded a CHP officer bore most of the responsibility for the fatal crash that day. He was driving about 85 mph in pursuit of an alleged speeder, without emergency lights or siren, on Oxnard Boulevard, when he slammed into the vehicle containing driver Christopher Haynes and his girlfriend, Jessica Mohorko, who died at the scene.

In a report on the crash, Senior Deputy District Attorney William Haney urged the CHP to re-examine its high-speed driving guidelines and place more restrictions on when high-speed chases are allowed. The state even had to pay a $1.4 million settlement to the Mohorko family.

The CHP's response, to quote CHP spokesman Tom Marshall: "There's nothing wrong with our policies."

Jessica Mohorko's death and the tragic deaths of hundreds of other innocent victims of high-speed police chases belie that coldhearted, arrogant response. Thankfully, someone in a position to do something about it is not intimidated by police and their lobbyists' threats.

State Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, has introduced a law, Senate Bill 1403 (formerly 1866), that allows police vehicle pursuits only if "imminent peril" to the public exists, and also eases restrictions shielding police from civil lawsuits if proposed statewide pursuit guidelines are disregarded. The law makes clear that imminent peril means an immediate injury or loss of life is about to occur. It states, "A likelihood of mere possibility of injury or loss of life is not sufficient to create an imminent peril."

The law will be heard next week in the Senate Public Safety Committee, after being held over from Tuesday, with an amendment to clarify the liability standard.

The Star Editorial Board urges support for this law, which is long overdue.

In 2001 -- the latest date for which statistics are available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- 365 fatalities were reported nationwide as a result of police vehicle pursuits. California had 51 fatalities, 24 of those innocent bystanders, more than any other state.

Sen. Aanestad's law is called Kristie's law, after 15-year-old Kristie Priano, of Chico, who died when police chased a teenage girl who had taken her mother's car without permission. The driver slammed into the Priano family's minivan on Jan. 22, 2002. Kristie died seven days later.

Currently, law enforcement agencies have a variety of guidelines regarding when vehicle pursuits are appropriate. Some, notably in Los Angeles, Orange and Sacramento counties, have cracked down on their pursuits. After a 5-week-old boy's arm was severed in a high-speed chase in 2002, the Los Angeles Police Department banned pursuits for minor infractions. That led to a 62 percent decline in the number of chases and fewer injuries and deaths.

Sen. Aanestad's law would create a statewide pursuit standard and implement common-sense provisions, such as requiring pursuing vehicles to have on a forward-facing red light and siren. Law enforcement and the public should embrace this proposed law for no other reason than that it will save innocent lives.

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