Drivers who flee the scene of a fatal accident would face longer prison terms under a bill pushed Tuesday by Attorney General Pam Bondi and lawmakers.
The measure’s sponsors say it would make the prison sentence for leaving the scene of a fatal accident equal to the punishment for DUI manslaughter. Florida law currently allows for briefer prison terms for those who flee a crash.
The bill also would bump up the minimum sentences for both offenses from two to four years.
“This is really an epidemic,” said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who is sponsoring the bill with Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka. “There is an incentive right now in driving off.”
The bill is called the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, named after a South Florida man killed in 2012 while bicycling.
Cohen and another biker were run over by Michele Traverso, who fled the scene and turned himself in 17 hours later, after it was impossible to determine whether he was drunk.
He was sentenced to 22 months in prison and released last October.
“No family should have to suffer like ours,” his widow, Patty Cohen, said at a news conference.
South Florida annually leads the state in the number of hit-and-run crashes, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Of more than 70,000 such crashes in 2012, the last year for which figures are available, about 20,000 took place in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Another 3,500 were recorded in Palm Beach County, the Highway Patrol said.
“We see all too many of these,” said FHP Sgt. Mark Wysocky. “Why people run is something we have to figure out. Some have suspended licenses, some no insurance and some are impaired.”
One high-profile South Florida hit-and-run case is sure to be back in the news later this year when Palm Beach County polo executive John Goodman again goes on trial.
Goodman was convicted of DUI manslaughter by a jury that in 2012 found he was drunk behind the wheel of his Bentley convertible on Feb. 12, 2010, when he slammed into the car of a 23-year-old University of Central Florida graduate.
The car flipped into a canal, and Goodman left the driver to drown, prosecutors alleged. Sentenced to 16 years in prison, Goodman, now 50, won a new trial when his lawyers successfully alleged juror misconduct.
In Broward County, the driver who fled after hitting 34-year-old Matthew Danchak is still on the loose.
Danchak was struck in October last year by a tractor-trailer while trying to cross the Sawgrass Expressway after he was involved in a minor collision.
The trucker did not stop, said Wysocky, and the case remains open.
Critically injured, Danchak came out of a coma and left the hospital after 44 days, said his sister, Melissa Echaus. But he still suffers from memory loss and problems with his legs, she said.
“We are still working to find the person who did this,” said Echaus, of Tamarac. “It has changed our family. We have been through hell and back. But thank God, my brother’s alive.”
The state sheriffs and police chiefs associations have endorsed the hit-and-run bill being proposed.
However, there was no analysis yet of the cost of the sentencing changes, which have already advanced in two Senate committees, Rep. Nelson said.
Attorney General Bondi said that as a former prosecutor, she knows Florida suffers from an “epidemic” when it comes to outdoor activities and hit-and-run drivers.
“We live in Florida. We’re a tourism state,” Bondi said. “People love biking and jogging, and just pushing their baby strollers down the street.”