ANNAPOLIS – The well-publicized police chases of the past week resonated through the House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee Tuesday as members examined a bill to substantially raise the penalty for motorists who attempt to elude police.
The bill, sponsored by committee chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, and a statewide array of delegates, will make the misdemeanor crime a felony.
Lawmakers hope the increased penalty will be a deterrent. Drivers who injure another person while attempting to outrun police on the road may face a three-year prison term or a $3,000 fine, or both. Causing a death may carry a $5,000 fine or a five- year prison term, or both.
Testifying before the committee, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, referred to the police pursuit Monday that ended with an accident near the Annapolis Mall on the outskirts of the capital.
“There are people in shock trauma today because of this high speed chase,” Taylor said. The accident injured three, two seriously.
In an incident Saturday, Adrienne Walker-Pittman, a spokeswoman for Baltimore-Washington International Airport, was severely injured by a car that went out of control while the driver was being pursued by Baltimore County Police.
Police representatives spoke in favor of the bill.
“Persons who are inclined to elude justice should have to pay a heavy price,” said Cpl. Dennis Howell, president of the Anne Arundel County Fraternal Order of Police and a county patrolman.
Some committee members seemed to regard the legislation’s language as too vague. Del. Kenneth G. Montague, D-Baltimore, wondered if “a scratch on the hand” could constitute an injury and carry the penalty specified by the bill.
Howell replied, “I can’t sit here and second guess every situation. It would be any bodily injury, whether it were a scratch or otherwise.”
Some delegates also expressed concern over citizens being charged with attempting to elude police on the basis of a misunderstanding.
One example cited was a lone female driver who may want to seek a safe, well-lighted place to speak with a police officer after he signals her to stop. This concern arose over past cases of criminals impersonating the police.
Howell argued that police officers are usually sensitive to those situations, and added, “I don’t know any police officer who would be so vain as to charge someone under those circumstances.” He also noted that the law relies heavily on the discretion of police.
Police officers would also be able to chase fleeing drivers across state lines, which is currently forbidden under state law.
An officer may cross a state line only in pursuit of someone who has committed a felony, Howell noted. Since trying to outrun a police officer is now a misdemeanor, the officer must turn back once the pursued has crossed the line.
The bill arose from the death of Prince George’s County Police Sgt. Roger Peck Fleming, who was killed in a 1992 crash after chasing a car containing two suspects on the Baltimore Washington Parkway. Fleming’s widow, Patty, testified that she found herself “a widow at 25.” Her daughter, 10 months old at the time of her father’s fatal accident, has “only some accolades to see what a hero her father was.” -30-