Ala. considers felony charges for evading police to prevent crashes, deaths
Over 532 people were killed in police pursuit crashes in 2020 alone, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
By Michael Wetzel
The Decatur Daily
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — When some motorists look in the rearview mirror and see a law enforcement vehicle's lights flashing, they don't pull over.
They try to get away.
If the flight is successful, the motorist may avoid a traffic citation or a serious charge from a pending warrant or having drugs in the vehicle. If caught, the additional charge for eluding police in Alabama is only a Class A misdemeanor charge, with a penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $6,000. Only if a third party is injured or killed during the attempt to elude does it become a Class C felony, in which case the offender's driver's license is suspended for six months to two years.
A local lawmaker wants to change that equation by increasing the legal consequences of fleeing, and he has support from area law enforcement agencies in his attempt to impose harsher penalties for drivers running from the law. Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, said he plans to at least co-sponsor a bill that will make the act of attempting to elude law enforcement a Class C felony charge when the Legislature reconvenes in March.
Rep. Ginny Shaver, R-Leesburg, sponsored such a bill in the last session and while it received House passage, the measure ran out of time in the Senate and died.
"Laws are on the books to protect the public," Stadthagen said. "This year we are going to make sure it goes through, just because all of the lives you put at risk during the pursuit."
A bicyclist was injured in July when a police pursuit along Interstate 65 went all the way from Priceville to Decatur. The cyclist was struck by the fleeing vehicle near Beltline Road Southwest at Spring Avenue. The cyclist was fortunate in that case, suffering only minor injuries, according to police reports. Two people in the car being pursued were arrested.
Stadthagen said some offenders are beating the current system.
"If they have enough drugs in the car to be a felony, they know they can run away from the officer, get far enough away, throw the drugs out and when they get pulled over it is just a misdemeanor," he said. "The risk to our citizens, the risk to our officers — it should be a felony, hands down."
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he supported the Shaver bill in committee and will do so again.
"I am open to dialogue from law enforcement agencies and prosecutors and any modifications they think necessary," he said. "But in principle, people who endanger others after committing a felony or driving at reckless speeds should not receive a misdemeanor/slap on the wrist as a penalty."
Law enforcement officials are on board with a tougher stance toward drivers who flee officers. Local sheriffs said they have called off some vehicle pursuits because the public could be in harm's way.
"We assess the situation in a car chase. Where is it? What time of day? We make a decision to terminate the chase or not," Limestone Sheriff Joshua McLaughlin said. "I've called off about three (chases) in the past year. We don't want to push a chase through a school zone or into high-volume traffic. But I believe the law (change) is long overdue here. Tennessee did something like this over a decade ago. I hope the law is written with some very stiff penalties."
Mississippi and Georgia both have laws in which fleeing police is a misdemeanor under some circumstances, but is a felony if the attempt to elude endangers others. In Tennessee, fleeing police is a misdemeanor unless the defendant uses a vehicle, in which case it is a felony. Fleeing in a vehicle is also a felony in Florida.
McLaughlin said the Limestone County Sheriff's Office has had an officer injured and a patrol car totaled in pursuits in the past couple of years.
He called the misdemeanor charge for a motorist attempting to elude police "not an appropriate penalty."
Under Stadthagen's plan, a conviction for attempting to elude police would be a felony on the same level as third-degree robbery, first-degree stalking or breaking and entering a vehicle. A Class C felony conviction in Alabama brings punishment of up to 10 years in state prison.
Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett said recently his department had been involved in 14 pursuits of fleeing motorists in 2022. Last year, his officers were involved in 26, and there were 23 in 2020, he said. Puckett said the numbers would be higher except public safety concerns rule out some chases.
"Running from law enforcement endangers lives, the motoring public, people working or playing in the yard," he said. "Law enforcement, we try to be very selective of pursuits. We don't pursue everybody who runs from us. The problem is the vehicle we're chasing. They have no regard for the public going through traffic signals. If they are running, many are already felons. Having another felony on them is nothing to them. Making it a felony will reduce the number of pursuits law enforcement encounters, but it won't stop everybody."
He said he would like to see a provision in the bill that would cover young, inexperienced drivers.
"I don't want a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kid to be charged or convicted of a felony. There has to be some leeway for them. If they're scared (and flee), that's a juvenile act," Puckett said. "I think most judges would do that in court. It's not about trying to put people in jail. It's about trying to reduce the number of pursuits law enforcement is involved in."
Dangers of pursuits
Puckett said pursuits endanger officers as well as the public because fleeing drivers often turn onto roads they're unfamiliar with.
"Sometimes they don't know where they're going," Puckett said. "They're running."
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at least 532 people were killed in police pursuit crashes in 2020, the last year the agency has full data. Its website also noted, "At least one, and as many as 10, occupants of police vehicles have died during pursuits each year since the mid-1980s."
Decatur Police Chief Todd Pinion said the Legislature will have his support in toughening the law on fleeing police.
"Putting it up to a felony will stop some people from taking off," he said. "It won't stop everybody though. If they've just committed a murder, they are not going to stop, but those fleeing because of a simple traffic violation or drug possession, it might slow them down. ... "In general, a pursuit can be one of the most dangerous things we do."
Lawrence County Sheriff Max Sanders said his officers recently were joined by Alabama state troopers and Courtland police in the Langtown area in a 10- to 15-minute pursuit of a young motorist who refused to pull over for having an expired license tag.
"We caught him when he turned down a dead-end road near the city lake," Sanders said. "Somebody could get seriously injured in a chase like that."
The sheriff said the driver, a man in his 20s, also had a small amount of marijuana in his possession. He said a Courtland police vehicle was slightly damaged in the chase.
"We had another one (recently). The chase started in Danville in Morgan County and came over here. The kid flipped the car and ran off, but we caught him," Sanders said.
He said most people eluding are attempting to hide something and breaking more laws, running red lights and stop signs along the way. "That is where the danger comes in," he added.
Sanders said changing the eluding law enforcement penalty to a felony will get some people's attention, but not others.
"If you have somebody breaking the law running, he isn't going to be thinking about what the law is. He's not thinking about the consequences," he said.
Rep. Proncey Robertson, R-Mount Hope, who spent 27 years in law enforcement before becoming a legislator in 2018, said he has stopped thousands of traffic violators and when they decide to flee instead the pursuit can become "a very dangerous situation."
"It's not unreasonable for it to become a felony," he said. "Many times there are terrible outcomes. ... It's a decision they made to run. A felony comes along with that decision."
Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson said making the law a felony will hopefully have an impact. "It should be a felony for anyone who intentionally increases that danger. We all have members of our families who travel the streets and roads of Morgan County every day. Anyone who places them in harm's way by attempting to elude the consequences of their crime should face a felony conviction and incarceration."
Opposition to change
Not everybody is in favor of a law making eluding law enforcement a felony.
Marcus Echols, chairman of the Lawrence County Democratic Party, said Blacks and other minorities might be treated unfairly especially in rural Lawrence County.
"I don't think it should be a felony on non-violent and misdemeanor type activities," he said. "It's just about putting more people in prison. Gov. (Kay) Ivey is building more prisons, and they've got to fill them up. This law will help do just that. People of all colors need to brace themselves if this idea becomes a law."
He said some motorists seeing blue lights in their rearview mirror will keep driving until they can find a well-lit area. "Many people already don't trust the police. Now you want them to be charged with a felony if they don't stop. I don't think that's good for anyone," he said.
Stadthagen said his bill won't include exceptions for age or race.
"Lady justice doesn't discriminate on race or gender or age. We have the law for the protection of the people of Alabama. If you elude and put everybody's life in danger, it doesn't matter your skin color, your gender. You are breaking the law, putting lives in danger and you need to be held accountable," he said. "If you are driving erratic and kill somebody. If that person is that scared, they don't need to have a driver's license. If they can't follow the law, they don't need to be behind the steering wheel."
(c)2022 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)
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