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Leaving the scene brings unequal consequences

Consider two criminal cases, alike and not so much, at least when it comes to doling out the law in equal measure.

In 2004 it was Jennifer Porter, a Hillsborough teacher who hit four children crossing a dark street and drove away. Two were killed, and two were seriously hurt. For the crime of leaving the scene of an accident involving death, Porter faced up to 15 years in prison.

Today, a 21-year-old Tampa woman named Amanda Bentz faces the charge of leaving the scene of a crash involving death. Investigators say one night in March, she hit a man who had a blood alcohol level of 0.35 and drove away. Like Porter before her, she would likely not have been charged had she only stayed.

But Bentz faces twice the sentence Porter did — up to 30 years in prison. She would face half that had she been charged with DUI-manslaughter, and how does that make sense?

One more difference between the two cases, and it's a biggie: Amanda Bentz went back to the scene of the crash.

In the infamous Porter case, it's hard to forget the ugly details of her father washing the blood from her car and Porter returning to work the next day.

Bentz drove away, too. She made calls on her cell phone. And about an hour after the crash, she came back with her father and, investigators said, cooperated fully.

But by law, coming back later doesn't matter. If someone is injured or dying or even dead, you stop, you help, you answer questions for police. Of course you do these things.

But shouldn't the fact that Bentz returned be taken into consideration? Shouldn't coming back in a reasonable period of time — "reasonable" being one of those law words for judges and juries to puzzle over — mean a lesser but still serious charge?

Might it even encourage those who panic — like Porter, like Bentz — to finally do the right thing?

Now, about why Bentz faces twice the time. In recent years, lawmakers bumped leaving the scene involving death from a second- to a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years — 15 more than DUI-manslaughter. Sometimes when lawmakers "fix" what they see as a weakness — or if you are cynical, when they beat their chests — quirks can happen.

So what about Amanda Bentz? As a practical matter, like Porter before her — and like Jordan Valdez, a Tampa high schooler who drove off after fatally hitting a homeless woman — she will not likely see jail. She was not drinking. She is not accused of causing the accident. She came back.

We elect our prosecutors and judges to handle the nuances of such complex cases, to take into account what she did and did not do, to consider that the mother of Billy Ivy, the man who died that night, said she wants Bentz to understand what she did but does not want prison.

An issue may be whether Bentz spends her life with a formal finding of guilt on her record, "adjudication," as it's called. Valdez, sentenced in the juvenile system, was not adjudicated guilty.

But here is another of those quirks: Because the crime is a first-degree felony, Bentz may not be able to avoid that record.

There is a lesson in these cases: You stop and you try to help, because it's the right thing and also the law.

But that law should be the same for everyone, and that law should note for the record: Amanda Bentz came back.

Leaving the scene brings unequal consequences 07/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 9:53am]
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