Josh Benham

No matter how refined your driving skills are, chances are you’ve looked in a rear view mirror and seen blue and red lights flashing.

It may have been for something as simple as rolling through a stop sign, but it doesn’t take the sting of a possible fine away. Most people, however, recognizes the virtue of law and order on roads.

It’s the small minority that behaves completely opposite — making an effort to elude — that has local law enforcement troubled. Two top local law enforcement officials believe a solution sanctions against people who elude police in a vehicle are too light and should be strengthened.

“What we’re seeing now is an attitude evolving with the criminal mindset that ‘we can run from the police, and nothing will happen to us,’” Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen said. “Either because (they’ll) just get kicked right back out of the jail, or the punishment isn’t harsh enough.”

La Grande Police Department Chief Brian Harvey said a solution could be to have a mandatory sentence for people convicted of attempt to elude.

“We need something that would actually be effective, not just sentencing someone to 10 days in jail,” Harvey said.

Rasmussen agreed, believing that until that happens, the public will be more and more at risk on the roads.

“The solution should be to make mandatory prison sentences if you elude a police officer,” Rasmussen said. “If that’s three years, four years — whatever they decide at the legislative level. Until they do that, we’re going to have more and more incidents where (criminals are) running from us, and they crash and kill people.”

Three local instances earlier this year highlighted the potential dangers of eluding police officers.

On March 9, Thomas Redding of Delaware led Oregon State Police on a high-speed pursuit on Interstate 84 from Perry to Ladd Canyon, roughly, before crashing in a rollover. Then on April 13, Zachary Vice sped away from Union County Sheriff’s Office deputies after failing to yield to attempts for a traffic stop. Vice subsequently led law enforcement on a chase traversing U.S. Highway 82 and 203 before crashing his vehicle into a business in Union.

Cody Hamlin was the latest example after leading law enforcement on a high speed chase on Morgan Lake Road and then onto Glass Hill Road on April 29.

After flat tires stopped the car, he fled on foot and law enforcement was not able to find him until he was arrested this week. Hamlin also attempted to elude police in 2014.

“It’s one of the things that’s been on my mind lately,” Rasmussen said. “We turn our lights on, we try to stop them, and they just bolt.”

No major injuries resulted in the recent cases, but considering the crimes occurred on well-traveled roads in the Grande Ronde Valley, many people were at risk of harm throughout these incidents.

“It is inherently dangerous,” Harvey said. “People are endangering the public, and in my opinion, the penalty is woefully inadequate.”

The charge of fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer is warranted when a driver knowingly attempts to flee from a properly identified law enforcement individual. If someone exits a pulled-over vehicle, runs on foot and is caught, they’re charged with a Class A misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $6,250 fine.

If the person remains in the car, flees and is caught, that charge becomes a Class C felony, with maximum sentences of five years in prison and a $125,000 fine. The penalties, surprisingly, are a only recent development. According to a 1989 version of Oregon laws, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer while operating a vehicle was simply a Class A misdemeanor, and Harvey said eluding on foot was not an element of the law. He said eluding on foot was added in 1991, but the charge remained a misdemeanor.

Harvey said the attitude of lawmakers continued to evolve, and in the late 1990s, attempting to elude — with the vehicle component — changed to a felony.

It’s not difficult to grasp why charges were stepped up regarding drivers fleeing, especially when vehicles travel at high speeds and put innocent lives in danger.

“You take a 4,000 pound vehicle, and you’re talking about an extremely potent weapon,” Harvey said. “They’re traveling 30, 40 miles an hour. That can do an enormous amount of damage.”

But even with higher penalties, Rasmussen said he’s seeing more instances of fleeing police by vehicle. For one, the “maximum penalties” are just that. In most cases, criminals don’t get the harshest punishments. Criminals may know that even if they’re caught trying to get away, with little to no criminal history, the penalty won’t be that severe.

Plus, criminals may be aware that leading a reckless chase through residential streets, or near schools, is something officers simply don’t do unless the situation is dire enough.

“The new motto is, unless it’s a serious felony or a crime where they’re going to be more risk to the public, and that risk represents more of a danger than chasing them, then we go ahead and pursue,” Rasmussen said.

Harvey and Rasmussen said in most cases, their departments pull back and try to find a different avenue of apprehending the fleeing individual, rather than chase them.

“What that’s doing is giving them an incentive to run, and so we’re seeing more and more eludes,” Rasmussen said.

However, often a fleeing vehicle won’t just stop and go the speed limit when law enforcement backs off, of course, which makes it into a no-win situation for police.

“There’s just not enough negative consequences,” Harvey said.