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Lawmakers work to tighten penalties on hit-and-runs

By Sascha Cordner

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-993298.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – A bill that would increase the penalties for a person fleeing the scene of an accident they caused, while the person left behind has a serious injury cleared its first committee stop. As Sascha Cordner reports, though it passed unanimously, several lawmakers raised concerns about putting stricter penalties in place.

The number of hit and runs occurring in Florida is on the decline. In 2008, about 82-thousand people fled the scene of an accident. But, now 2010 data shows, that number's down to 75-thousand.

That hasn't stopped Republican Senator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey from putting forward a bill that would increase the penalty for someone who flees the scene of an accident, leaving behind an injured person. Today, that person is charged with a third degree felony. If Fasano's bill becomes law, that individual will be charged with a second degree felony:

"We believe that there are many instances throughout the state where we are seeing individuals that are under the influence of something, they leave the scene, and when they are caught, they cannot be charged for being under the influence, and they're doing that because they don't want to be charged with that additional penalty and possible jail time. We need to deter people from doing that."

Fasano says people forget there is already a law on the books that says people cannot leave the scene of an accident...That, and the fact that stiffer penalties need to be put in place. He cited the example of a Pinellas Park woman who left an accident scene in 2001, leaving two people injured.

"It was pretty much determined that she was driving while under the influence, but she couldn't be charged with that, because she was caught later on. So, all she got was probation. And, yet two people were injured. One person was injured for the rest of their life. And, yet that person who created that accident who hurt those people, who left the scene, just got a slap on the back of the wrist. That's wrong."

But, during a recent Senate Transportation Committee meeting, a few lawmakers questioned Fasano about his bill. Here is Democratic Senator Arthenia Joyner of Tampa:

"How do you feel about the fact that people aren't aware of it? And, if we had a campaign like click it and ticket or something to educate the public about the need?"

Senator Joyner also raised questions about increasing the penalty based on the magnitude of the injury, which was the same thought of Republican Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto of Wellington:

"If the injured person had received an injury, but it was a sprain? Would that in your mind be warranted for someone being charged with a second degree felony? Now in the case that a person is paralyzed, a person receives a back injury that precludes them from working. I understand the underlying concept. But, I wouldn't want this to be a situation where the system could be abused for the effort of trying to create more meaningful penalties."

But, Republican Senator Ronda Storms of Brandon says lawmakers shouldn't be questioning the scope of the injury, even if it's minor, because it could be worse.

"If you leave the scene of a crime, you've leave the scene of a crime, and it's not that you just sobered up. It is now that law enforcement officers cannot place you in the vehicle and that precludes effective prosecution. So, for me, I am more inclined to say even if it's a minor sprain, it could have been very much worse. The force of the law does two things: one is to administer justice and the other is to provide a deterrent."

Democratic Senator Larcenia Bullard of Miami agrees. She says she's happy that in her last year in office, she can see good bills like this one. She recalls the late 1990s when she was the victim of a hit-and-run accident:

"I tell you thank you. I wish this had come to be in 1998 when I was left on the side of the road with injuries that I'm suffering from today. It was unlawful for that person to do that to me because I was left at the site, injured, and the person was caught at the airport, but the person was never penalized for that."

But, after the meeting, Senator Joyner spoke about what really concerned her and why she questioned Senator Fasano's bill:

"We are faced with a budget crisis and we need to take a serious look at whether it's absolutely necessary to enhance penalties to move it from one degree to a higher degree because the penalty gets more severe and more time will have to be served behind bars and it costs us 25-thousand dollars a year to house someone in state prison."

Despite concerns, the bill passed unanimously out of committee. Senator Fasano says he may look into amending the bill before it heads to its next stop, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.