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Governor signs bill on high speed chases

April 23, 1997

By DAVE McMILLION

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - With the parents of Amanda Marie Smailes at his side, Gov. Cecil Underwood signed into law Wednesday a bill that increases the penalties for motorists who lead police on high-speed chases like the one that killed the 21-year-old Inwood, W.Va., woman.

Underwood also unveiled a new gadget that police can toss in front of a fleeing motorist to disable the vehicle.

"We must stand up and face this intolerable type of behavior," Underwood said during a bill signing ceremony at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg.

Smailes, a 21-year-old Shepherd College student, was on her way home from her job at the Wal-Mart store in Martinsburg last November when her car was struck from behind by a car that was being chased by police. Police believe the Nissan SX they were chasing may have been traveling at about 100 mph when it struck Smailes' car along U.S. 11 just north of Inwood.

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Robert Lee Sparkman Jr., 28, of Gerrardstown, W.Va., the driver of the Nissan, was charged with driving under the influence resulting in death, a felony that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in jail, officials said.

Under the new law, which was introduced by Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley, a motorist who leads police on a chase that results in the death of another person could face up to 15 years in prison.

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

Under the new law, anyone who flees from an officer faces up to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail. If the motorist causes property damage, the person could face up to six months in jail and a $3,000 fine, and if the motorist injures someone, the driver could face up to five years in prison, officials said.

If the fleeing motorist is drunk, the driver could face one to five years in jail.

A number of Smailes' family members were at the bill-signing, as well as family members of other people who have been killed in high-speed police chases.

John Smailes, Amanda's father, said Underwood's decision to come to Martinsburg to sign the bill "shows an active commitment on his part. And I appreciate that."

Sisters Jean McCormick, Dot Canby and Goldie Cox said its been 17 years since their sister Bea Saville died after her car was struck by a vehicle that fled from police. The chase started in southern Berkeley County and ended in Virginia.

"It still hurts," said Cox.

The car disabling device, which Underwood called a "road spike," is a flat object that can be placed in the road ahead of the fleeing motorist. When the car approaches, police can raise a small set of metal spikes on the device that puncture the tires on the suspect's vehicle, Underwood said.

Underwood said there are six parts to the road spike, and each piece will be produced by a West Virginia company.

State Police in Martinsburg already have a similar equipment, but refer to them as "stop sticks."

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