By Ed Brock
If anything, the bill going through the Georgia House of Representatives that would make leading police on a high-speed chase a felony is an idea that's long overdue, Morrow Police Chief Kenny Smith said.
After the deadly police chase that claimed the life of Peachtree City resident Chuck Vicha in July 2002, Smith said, there was a movement to pass a similar law but that bill died in the legislature.
"Now's the time to do it," Smith said. "If they don't pass it this time somebody else will probably die and they'll say ?oh, we should have done that.'"
The measure was prompted by the December death of Georgia State Patrol Trooper Tony Lumley, who died when he ran off the road during a high-speed chase in Spalding County. That chase began after a robbery in Clayton County.
The suspect who was fleeing the trooper, 26-year-old Kenneth Brad Medlock, faces five felony counts of murder for Lumley's death.
Currently it is only a misdemeanor to refuse to stop a vehicle for a police officer. The bill would make it a felony, punishable by five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, when drivers refuse to stop for police and then drive more than 20 miles per hour over the speed limit.
"If someone's gonna flee from police, they're gonna flee whether it's a misdemeanor or a felony," said Rep. Tom Buck, D-Columbus, who sponsored the bill. "But it ought to be a felony, especially when it results in the death of a peace officer."
Not only should it be a felony, said Smith who is also the immediate past president of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, but an even stronger penalty should be assessed against the violators.
"These bad guys, they don't care unless you have a penalty that matters to them," Smith said.
Part of the penalty should be revoking the violator's license for a substantial length of time.
The bill is still in committee and has strong backing from state Rep. Victor Hill, D-College Park, who is also a detective with the Clayton County Police Department.
"Any time a criminal runs from the police they're aiming a two-ton weapon at the public with no regard for their safety," Hill said. "The worst day in my career as a lawman was a police chase I was indirectly involved in where the perpetrator hit a car and killed a family of four."
While a chase can currently lead to other felony charges, such as reckless endangerment if the violator goes more than 30 miles over the speed limit, the new law would be even better, Clayton County police Capt. Jeff Turner said.
"Hopefully that will make people think twice about running from the police," Turner said. "A lot of times we have people running for stupid things."
Those stupid reasons include the fact that the violator is driving on a suspended license or without insurance or other misdemeanors. Smith also said that if a person realizes that they would be better off just stopping they may be less inclined to start a chase that could end in death.
The Associated Press also contributed to this article.