Legislator looks to increase penalties for high-speed chases that result in deaths

Jan 17, 2012

There’s a bill that would increase the penalties for people involved in high speed car chases with police, that result in serious bodily injury or death of another. As Sascha Cordner reports, one lawmaker says it’s necessary because in the case of a Hernando County deputy who was killed last year during a high speed chase, the man responsible could get sentenced to a minimum of three years in prison.

“The impact was so severe that he was killed almost instantly. And, after, you’re kind of in shock, we were together almost 18 years and we have two amazing kids.”

Penny Mecklenburg is recounting what happened when her husband, 35-year-old John Mecklenburg, died when he veered off the road and into a tree during a high speed chase with a felon on probation. That happened in July of last year. Months later, Republican Representative Richard Corcoran found out the man responsible could get sentenced to as little as three years in prison.

“The prosecutors in the case wanted to prosecute the gentleman for felony murder, and as they were going through the case file, realized the statute does not have the first degree felony of fleeing or eluding with seriously bodily injury or death as one of the enumerated statutes, and as a result, the perpetrator could get as little as three years in prison. But, all the bill does is allow the first degree felony of fleeing and eluding with serious bodily injury or death to be one of the enumerated underlying felonies in the felony murder statute.”

Under Florida law, a person can be charged with first degree felony murder for killing someone, during the act of certain crimes, like during a robbery or arson. But, “aggravated fleeing and eluding” a marked police car that results in serious bodily injury or death does not qualify as a first degree felony murder, just as a first degree felony.

With a first degree felony murder charge, a person could face the penalty of death, depending on the court’s findings. They could also get life in prison and be ineligible for parole.

Whereas a first degree felony is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a 10-thousand dollar fine, and carries a minimum of sentence of three years.

Penny Mecklenburg, the widow of the fallen deputy, says when she first heard that 36-year-old Michael Anthony James, the man responsible for her husband’s death, could get three years in prison, she was shocked:

“That would mean that my children who are now five and two wouldn’t even be in high school, let alone out of high school, before I had to tell them that the bad guy who took away their dad forever is out and he’s free and that’s not acceptable to me and so I said what do I do? What can I do?”

She ended up contacting Representative Corcoran, who worked to craft the bill that would change the charge from a regular first degree felony to a first degree felony charge of murder, meaning it would do away with the three-year minimum:

“How many times do you hear that somebody ran from the police? Once a week! Once a week you hear someone ran from the police from a marked car. It doesn’t always result in a death thankfully, but it’s going to happen again. It’s going to be somebody’s brother, or their son, or their mom, it doesn’t have to a police officer. It can be anybody, and that person is going to get away with it, and they’re going to get three years in prison, unless we change it, which it is.”

As a former deputy who has been involved in many high speed pursuits, Representative Ray Pilon of Sarasota says the bill really hit close to home:

“Every time I had to pursue somebody, the first thought on my mind was yes, the job that I was doing and who I was pursuing, and then afterwards it was always oh my goodness, my family, what would they do without me? It never stopped me from doing the duty I was in oath to do as it did her husband. I could not more strongly support a bill in this house this session than this one, and I thank you again for bringing it forward.”

And, Port St. Lucie Republican Gayle Harrell says she’s seen instances, like Mecklenburg’s, happen in a county that she represents.

“We have had a situation in Martin County where exactly the same kinds of things have happened and it’s not unusual to see a situation like this and to elevate this crime to this level, where when you cause someone’s death, you should be held responsible for it, and that individual caused that death as surely as if he had a gun and shot him in the head.”

Corcoran’s bill unanimously passed in the House Criminal Justice committee, and the measure’s next stop is the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. The bill’s Senate Sponsor is Senator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey. The bill has yet to be heard.