After a New Castle woman led police on a high-speed chase with a child in the car, local officials are calling for the penalties for resisting law enforcement with a vehicle to be higher.
Sarah A. Willis, 30, was arrested on two felony counts of neglect of a dependent; felony charges of resisting law enforcement with a vehicle and possession of a hypodermic syringe or a needle; and a misdemeanor charge of possession of a controlled substance. She was also arrested on an out-of-county warrant from Madison County, where she was wanted for violating probation in a drug possession case.
During the chase, Willis allegedly drove at speeds up to 105 mph with a male passenger and an 11-year-old in the car. At one point the car went airborne before the chase ended.
No taillights lead to chase
A Johnson County Sheriff’s deputy was on patrol and turning onto eastbound Smith Valley Road from Interstate 69 around 2 a.m. Friday when he saw a black Honda with no taillights passing by. He began to follow the car, which they say was driven by Willis. She later reportedly went around a roundabout to go westbound on Smith Valley Road, according to a sheriff’s office report.
The deputy tried to do a traffic stop on Willis at the intersection of Smith Valley Road and Bluffdale Drive, but she did not stop. The Honda then fled the scene, speeding north on Bluffdale Drive up to 105 mph with the deputy in pursuit, the report shows.
Along a curve, the car lost control. Willis tried to correct the steering but later went airborne, spinning in the air counterclockwise. Deputies say the car went airborne at nearly 70 mph, according to the report.
The car continued driving northbound before stopping at a culvert. A male passenger got out of the car, and shortly after the deputy learned there was an 11-year-old child in the car. The child was crying for help in the backseat because their back was hurting. White River Township firefighters were then called to the scene to give medical aid, the report says.
After being taken into custody, Willis reportedly gave deputies false information about her identity at first. She was later taken to Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis for treatment.
The male passenger and the 11-year-old declined medical treatment, and the child was later given to the Department of Child Services, according to the report.
When deputies searched the vehicle, they found an open-top cooler and a pill bottle without a label. They also found five syringes inside the car, the report shows.
Both Willis and the passenger denied possessing the needles. The passenger also allegedly said the pills belonged to Willis, although he thought she had left them at another location. He also said if the pills did belong to Willis, they would be in a labeled bottle, according to the report.
Sheriff, prosecutor call for change
Hours after the chase, the leaders of the Johnson County Sheriff’s and Prosecutor’s offices are calling for harsher penalties for defendants convicted of resisting law enforcement with a vehicle.
Johnson County Sheriff Duane Burgess says the penalties need to be increased because suspects can put many people’s lives in danger when they run from police.
“They’re running for some reason, if it’s drugs or maybe they’ve just committed a very serious crime, but they put everybody’s lives in danger,” Burgess said. “There needs to be a mandatory sentence that these folks get so that they realize when they go to jail or prison that this is not a game.”
Burgess has already had discussions with state legislators in the past about increasing the penalties. After he learned about Friday’s pursuit, Burgess said he contacted a state senator to discuss the recent incident to try to get it back to the forefront, he said.
Brandon Robinson, chief deputy prosecutor for the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office, said many prosecutors feel that the current criminal penalty for resisting law enforcement with a vehicle makes it “essentially an enhanced misdemeanor.” Johnson County Prosecutor Lance Hamner said there is unanimous agreement among law enforcement that the penalties “should be substantially increased.”
“Criminals who endanger innocent people by running from police should know that they will face serious prison time, not a slap on the wrist. That requires action by our legislature,” Hamner said.
Resisting law enforcement with a vehicle is a Level 6 felony under Indiana law. Someone convicted of the crime could be given a sentence anywhere between six months to 2.5 years, though the advisory sentence is one year.
This is not enough, Hamner said.
“Public safety requires that this offense be elevated to at least a Level 5 felony, punishable by up to six years in prison, or better yet, an even higher level felony, commensurate with the offense they’re fleeing to avoid,” he said.
If someone is a repeat offender of resisting law enforcement with a vehicle, the highest possible charging level they could get is a Level 5 felony, Robinson said. These felonies carry a sentencing range of one to six years, with an advisory sentence of three years.
However, what Robinson says is most concerning is that the charge of resisting law enforcement resulting in death is only a Level 3 felony. Level 3 felonies have a sentencing range of three to 16 years, with an advisory sentence of nine years.
It should be substantially higher in these cases, Robinson said. Hamner agreed, saying cases resulting in death “should result in decades in prison, not just a few years.”
“Bottom line, our people need to be protected from these dangerous offenders and we need the statutory tools to be able to provide that protection,” Hamner said.
Burgess also has a message he wants to get out to the public.
“If you’re coming to Johnson County and you’re going to commit a crime, the penalty is going to be hefty,” Burgess said. “Our prosecutor is going to do his due diligence and ensure that you are prosecuted to the fullest extent when you put other people’s lives in danger.”