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Chase bill stalls in W.Va. Legislature

April 09, 1997

By DAVE McMILLION

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Legislation that would crack down on motorists who lead police on chases has stalled in the West Virginia Legislature.

Under the proposed bill, a motorist who leads police on a chase that results in the death of another person could be convicted of a felony and face between three to 15 years in prison.

But lawmakers said the bill introduced by Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley, is in trouble. House bill 2221, which has been passed by the House of Delegates, has been taken off the Senate calendar, which means no action can be taken on it, said Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson.

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Snyder said the Senate leadership is worried that the new law would give too much power to small police departments. But Snyder said he is working to get the bill back on the Senate calendar and passed. Faircloth could not be reached for comment.

The Legislature is expected to conclude its session a week from today.

Faircloth's bill came after Amanda Marie Smailes of Inwood, W.Va., was killed last November when her car was struck from behind by a car that was being chased by West Virginia State Police.

"We're charting new ground, which is not easy in the Legislature," said Snyder.

Other lawmakers believe the bill will pass.

"I don't think it's dead, but you never know," said Sen. Harry Dugan, R-Berkeley.

Smailes, a 21-year-old Shepherd College student who was on her way home from her job at the Wal-Mart store in Martinsburg, was killed Nov. 24 when her Ford Escort was struck from behind along U.S. 11 near Darkesville police said. Police believe the Nissan SX they were chasing may have been traveling at about 100 mph when it struck Smailes' car.

The driver of the Nissan was charged with driving under the influence resulting in death. A conviction on that charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.

Some lawmakers wanted tougher penalities for those who flee from police.

The problem is that in pursuits that do not result in death, the only violation for which police can cite a motorist is failure to stop for an emergency vehicle, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum punishment of a $500 fine and 10 days in jail, officials said.

Under Faircloth's bill, anyone who is convicted of fleeing from an officer would be guilty of a misdemeanor and would face a fine of between $500 and $1,000 and up to a year in jail. If the fleeing motorist causes property damage, the person could face a fine of between $1,000 and $3,000 and six months to a year in jail, officials said.

If the motorist causes injury to someone, the driver could be convicted of a felony and face between one and five years in prison, officials said.

If a motorist flees from police and is drunk, the person would face a felony charge punishable by one to five years in prison, officials said.

Although House bill 2221 has support among lawmakers and police, some believe the penalty for a fleeing motorist who causes a death should be higher.

"As far as I'm concerned, they ought to make it 10 years mandatory," said Berkeley County Sheriff Ronald Jones. "You're taking someone's life."

Dugan said the three- to 15-year jail term for a pursuit that results in death "seems light."

A state police spokesman, however, said his agency would be "pretty satisfied with it" if the bill passed.

"Obviously we support it. We've worked with several of the delegates in drafting that particular piece of legislation," said Capt. Charlie Bedwell, director of planning and research for the state police.

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