Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (Screenshot)
Moved to act after the death of a Scranton police officer, the Republican-controlled Senate has approved legislation that would increase the penalties for those who try to evade arrest on foot.
Lawmakers in the upper chamber voted 36-14 on Tuesday to approve legislation sponsored by Sens. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, and Marty Flynn, D-Lackawanna, that would update the law to include evading arrest on foot. Existing statutes prohibit fleeing police by vehicle.
Under the proposal, named after Officer John Wilding, violators fleeing for an underlying offense would face a third-degree felony if another person suffers serious bodily injury and a second-degree felony if someone dies as a result of the violation. It also creates a third-degree felony offense for cases where a police animal dies or suffers serious bodily injury and a second-degree misdemeanor if the animal suffers injury as a result of the violation.
Yudichak said the legislation addresses “a serious deficiency” in Pennsylvania law that prevents district attorneys from charging suspects who put officers, police animals, and the public at “serious risk of bodily injury or death by willfully evading police.”
Wilding, 29, fell to his death in 2015 while chasing three teenagers suspected of armed robbery. They were charged in the death, but pleaded guilty to a lesser offense, and received a sentence of nine to 18 years in prison, according to WNEP-TV.
“If you do a crime and you don’t comply, there should be effects for your decision,” Flynn said, saying the bill focuses on accountability. “You should have to comply with the officers. We’re a nation of laws. If you don’t follow laws, there are consequences, and this bill finally puts some teeth in fleeing the scene for criminals.”
The bill, which advanced out of committee in a 12-2 vote last week, was amended after some Senate Democrats expressed concern over its constitutionality. The change clarified the grading system outlined in the proposal on Tuesday and was approved 37-13.
Before Tuesday’s floor vote, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sent a memo to lawmakers outlining their opposition. Urging senators to vote against the legislation, the ACLU said the bill could “add to the tsunami of criminal offenses” by creating “duplicative and unnecessary offenses.”
In a copy of the document shared with the Capital-Star, the ACLU argued that the bill criminalizes “the legal and constitutional right to run from law enforcement.
The proposal also presumes individuals know that their arrest or detention is lawful and that the arrest or detention is legal, the ACLU said. The memo added that the new penalties could “target young Black men and other people of color who may be legally running from a police officer to charge them with a felony offense.”
“The only known opponent of Senate Bill 814, the ACLU, argues that a criminal suspect has the constitutional right to evade arrest,” Yudichak said. “It is an absurd argument. It is a dangerous argument for law-abiding citizens throughout Pennsylvania. Does a criminal suspect have a constitutional right to kill a cop?”
Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, urged a negative vote on the bill. Citing the use of dogs against people of color, Street said that the bill criminalizes “the mere running” from police animals.
“You cannot undo the damage that’s done when a dog begins to bite you, rip away your flesh, and tear at you,” he said. “You cannot change the fact that people, particularly people of color, for years have seen dogs used to attack people of color.”
He added: “While I have the greatest respect for our men and women in blue, this bill goes too far. No one should have to stand there and face the biting, the vicious teeth of dogs and have to stand there and take it or face penalties of up to seven years in jail.”
With approval from the Senate, the legislation now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has not said whether he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk. A spokesperson for the administration told the Capital-Star that he will review the proposal as it moves through the Legislature.
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