On Dec. 30, 2019, Master Patrol Officer Spencer Bristol from neighboring Sumner County was hit by a car while he was running across Interstate 65 to chase a fleeing suspect.
He died from his injuries that night, leaving behind his wife, Lauren, and daughter Eloise, who was 3 at the time.
The suspect he was chasing received only four years in prison, the maximum sentence.
On July 1, the Spencer Bristol Act became law, making the penalty for causing an officer’s death while evading arrest a Class A felony, punishable by up to 60 years in prison.
Previously, evading arrest was a Class A misdemeanor or a Class E felony if a suspect fled in a motor vehicle. If the flight created a risk of death or injury to bystanders or law enforcement, it was a Class D felony.
The Class E felony was punishable by at least 30 days in jail. The Class D felony was punishable by at least 60 days.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. William Lamberth and Sen. Ferrell Haile, passed the House and Senate unanimously this year.
Lamberth originally tried to run the bill in 2020, but due to COVID-19, bills with a cost were shelved, he said. The fiscal note of $38,263 is for the longer incarceration times.
“It really just broke my heart for the family, for our community, for our state that we would lose a hero like that and that the perpetrators of that crime would wind up serving just a small amount of time in jail — matter of months,” he said.
Lamberth called Lauren Bristol to ask if it was OK if he named the bill after her husband.
She wrote that it was hard for her to support the bill at first. She wasn’t sure how she felt about throwing jail time around.
“My husband and our child’s father was gone, and no punishment could bring him back,” she wrote in an email.
Lauren Bristol wrote that after a lot of prayer, she came to the conclusion that a higher level felony was appropriate because actions such as drunken driving, reckless driving or evading arrest are choices that can lead to the loss of life.
She wrote that it was a miracle no one else was hurt or killed the night her husband died.
“I desperately wanted a different miracle from that night but I am truly thankful no one else was physically hurt,” she wrote.
Evading arrest appears to be a crime on the rise, especially in Middle Tennessee, according to Hendersonville Police Cmdr. Scott Ryan.
He said he thinks people have learned that law enforcement officers are busy so they may not be caught if they run away.
“It’s just kind of a risk that they’re willing to take,” he said.
He said that increasing the certainty of being caught and the severity of the punishment were two factors that can help crime rates go down.
“We’re certainly hoping that it will deter the fleeing and evading aspect just through the publicity that it has received and knowing that there is a higher consequence,” Ryan said.
Lamberth said he had received questions early on about the increase in penalties, in some cases from a misdemeanor or an E felony to an A or B felony, but he thought it was justified due to the crime.
“Folks should just stop and go through the court system and let that system do its job to protect your rights,” Lamberth said.
Law enforcement support
Law enforcement officers have given an “enormous amount of support” to the bill, Lamberth said.
He added that he believes every single community in the state supports its law enforcement. The bill was a way to show that Tennessee truly does “back the blue.”
“What I’ve heard from law enforcement is that they appreciate this bill because it reflects the enormous amount of danger that they put themselves in every single day to keep all the rest of us safe.”
Dan Bristol, Spencer’s father, said his son would be all for what the law did.
“I think he would be happy to see it because he definitely respected the law, and he certainly would not want his fellow officers to be in jeopardy when someone’s running from them,” he said.
Lauren Bristol shared that the law meant several things to her personally along with a hope that it will deter evasions.
“It means justice for future families who may have to carry the burden of loss or life changing injury. It is recognition of the first responders who run towards danger. It is a reminder of the strength of spirit my husband embodied as he took his last breath. It means peace knowing that another family will never sit in a room to hear the details of how their family member died followed immediately by the words ‘two to four years.’ It’s a legacy for our daughter that even though really bad things can happen they can also bring change — that there is always room to do better, be better.”