Rep. Carey files bill that aims to strengthen high-speed chase law

  • Rep. Dan Carey, D-Eashtampton, has filed legislation that would make fleeing from police in a vehicle in a reckless or negligent manner a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Staff file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 12/14/2021 1:23:08 PM
Modified: 12/14/2021 1:22:33 PM

BOSTON — A bill introduced by state Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, would make fleeing from the police in a vehicle in a reckless or negligent manner a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

“This proposed legislation would close a gaping loophole in our criminal statutes,” Northwestern First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne said in testimony at a hearing before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation on Monday.

Currently under Massachusetts law, fleeing police in a motor vehicle is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine.

The bill (H.3420) would establish a new felony for when a person fails to stop for police and then flees in a motor vehicle “negligently or recklessly upon any way or in any place to which the public has a right of access.”

Those found guilty could be sentenced to as much as five years in state prison or 2½ years in jail.

“This gives courts the ability to impose serious penalties in appropriate situations,” Gagne said at the hearing.

However, Gagne said that violators could still be sentenced to probation and the charge could be continued without a finding. The prosecutor said the proposed law would not necessarily mean that all instances of failing to stop for police would be treated as felonies, noting that the law would only apply to evading police and doing so in a dangerous or negligent manner.

Massachusetts is alone among New England states in not having enhanced penalties for fleeing from police in the highlighted manner, Gagne said, which makes the Bay State an “outlier.”

Carey, a former prosecutor in the Northwestern district attorney’s office, said in an interview that the bill came about from his work at the district attorney’s office.

Like Gagne, Carey said there’s no charge in Massachusetts specifically for fleeing from the police in this manner, and that going at 70 or 80 mph through downtown Easthampton or South Hadley, for example, would endanger others.

“The response has been positive so far,” Carey said of his bill.

Rachel Weber, a defense attorney, isn’t convinced the bill is needed. She said that high-speed chases that pose a danger to the public are already covered by other statutes, and that negligent operation of a motor vehicle can result in a two-year jail sentence.

Weber said that ramping up penalties will make it easier for people of color to pick up felonies, due to racial profiling in every step of the justice system.

“That’s the impact,” she said. “That cuts against public safety.”

Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, and Rep. Pat Duffy, D-Holyoke, are co-sponsors of Carey’s bill.

“I heard that it was a priority for the region,” Blais said, when asked about her support for the bill.

South Hadley Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen also spoke at the hearing in support of the bill.

“It will improve public safety by finally putting some teeth into the very outdated failure to stop statute,” said Gundersen, nothing that the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association also supports the measure.

Gundersen said police departments hope that the law, if passed, will serve as a deterrent.

Weber, however, expressed doubt that the proposed law would provide a deterrent, considering chases are fight-or-flight situations where people aren’t necessarily behaving rationally.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan provided written testimony in support of the bill, saying that it would “create safer roadways and prevent deaths and serious injuries caused by motorists who engaged in high-speed pursuits.”

Sullivan, in a statement on the DA’s website, notes that the legislation in no way encourages police to engage in high-speed pursuits and that many departments already curtail the circumstances under which officers can pursue drivers who flee at high speeds. 

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