Alisha Nicole Mankin was wanted for a misdemeanor when she fled a police stop last month in a stolen U-Haul truck and led police on a televised 90-mile chase along the region's busiest freeways at rush hour.
After pleading guilty to felony evading of a police officer, she could receive up to a year in state prison, or probation, when she is sentenced in Ventura County on March 13.
Southern California law enforcement authorities say there has been a steady decline in police pursuits over the last decade, but a recent rash of chases broadcast to area viewers has put the risk-filled, resource-draining problem back in the spotlight.
And cases like Mankin's have spurred suggestions that the state's sentencing laws should impose stricter penalties on those who flee.
"This is what the Legislature enacted," Greg Brose, Ventura County's chief deputy district attorney, said of the one-year maximum sentence facing evaders such as Mankin, who remains in jail pending sentencing.
In exchange for her guilty plea, Ventura County authorities dropped three lesser charges and will forward a probation report to the sentencing judge with any relevant mitigating circumstances, Brose said.
Asked if he thought more serious deterrence was in order, Brose replied: "I'm sure there are plenty of peace officers who believe that's the case. If I'm on a highway, I have very serious concerns about someone trying to evade police."
On Jan. 28, Mankin bolted from a Palmdale traffic stop by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies. The chase was notable for its dramatic conclusion, with a California Highway Patrol officer tackling the 26-year-old on the dusty flanks of California 118 near Somis.
But the three-hour duration and costly deployment of cruisers, officers, helicopters and spike-laying trucks was not out of the ordinary. Another high-speed chase three days later dominated local airwaves for more than 90 minutes, and back-to-back pursuits last week involving a suicidal Bentley driver and a car thief also forced state and county authorities to commit tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in law enforcement resources to bring the flights to an end.
Felony evading of a police officer, when combined with reckless driving, carries a minimum jail sentence of 16 months and a maximum of three years, plus a $10,000 fine, said Sandi Gibbons, public information officer for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
But there is no direct correlation between the expenditure of law enforcement resources to stop fleeing drivers and the severity of the sentences, officials concede.
In cases where fleeing drivers have caused injury or death, charges of assault with a deadly weapon or murder have been brought, said Jane Robison, the district attorney's press secretary. She pointed to two murder convictions secured against fleeing drivers in 2001 and 2003, but said there were no records of more recent fatal police chases that sent perpetrators to jail.
At least nine people have died in police pursuits in Los Angeles in the last seven months; most of those fatalities were the offending drivers, but two pedestrians were killed on Hollywood Boulevard in July, and the Bentley driver, Chicago resident Mustafa Mustafa, shot himself Feb. 10.
Asked if there should be enhanced penalties for evading police, Det. Bill Bustos of the LAPD's Valley Traffic Division said, "I leave that to the lawmakers to decide. But this is a very serious offense when you've got a person driving recklessly, being chased by police, not abiding by the law, running red lights, putting everybody's life in danger."
Annual incidents of LAPD pursuits have been declining, with 330 recorded last year, down from 419 in 2007 and 549 in 2006, records show. In 2001, there were 769 pursuits reported by the LAPD. So far this year, the department's Pursuit Review Unit has recorded "approximately 30," said Officer David Lee, on par with last year.
The CHP participated in 5,793 pursuits statewide last year, the vast majority -- 5,066 -- lasting less than 10 minutes, said CHP spokeswoman Jaime Coffee.
"I'm tempted to say that the perception [of an escalating pursuit problem] is there because of the publicity," said Steve Kohler, another CHP spokesman. "It's one of those things where historically, especially in the Los Angeles area, there is almost rabid coverage of anything that goes on."
High-speed chases have captivated viewers for decades, culminating in the 1994 police pursuit of O.J. Simpson, said veteran radio traffic reporter Jeff Baugh of KNX-AM (1070), who is on the board of directors for the Radio & Television News Assn. of Southern California.
"When it comes to TV, what troubles me is that it's not breaking news they're reporting with a pursuit, it's more breaking entertainment," he said, justifying the radio coverage as important real-time public safety information for listeners on the road.