Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Cyclists turn tragedy into action in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE — Mickey Witte left the courtroom in tears.

She could not believe that the driver who had struck a fellow cyclist on Miami's Rickenbacker Causeway and left him there to die would serve less than two years in jail.

The following day, Witte fired off an email to other members of the Miami cycling community.

The subject line: "Taking it to Tallahassee."

Last month — more than two years after the crash — Witte and a team of cyclists, activists, lobbyists and lawmakers helped pass a bill increasing the penalties for drivers who leave the scene of a crash causing death or injury.

It was named the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act.

What happened following Cohen's tragic death in 2012 is the story of a band of cyclists and a widowed mother of two who together were determined to make a difference.

"A lot of good bills never become law," said state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, the veteran lawmaker who guided the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act through the upper chamber.

But this proposal was different, Diaz de la Portilla said.

"It was the perfect combination of good ideas and goodwill," he said.

A father, an athlete

An experienced cyclist and father of two young children, Aaron Cohen was riding across the Rickenbacker Causeway on the morning of Feb. 15, 2012, when he was struck by a silver Honda.

The driver, 25-year-old Michele Traverso, did not stop and call for help. Instead, he drove home and covered his battered car with a tarp. He turned himself into police 18 hours later.

At the time of the crash, Witte was working at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

The triathlete and neuroscientist did not know Cohen well. She had met him only once at a cycling event. But when she heard what had happened on the causeway, she couldn't help feeling like it could have been her.

She hurried to Ryder Trauma Center, where Cohen had been taken.

"It was truly a surreal moment for me," she recalled. "It was almost as if I had no choice but to go."

Months later, Witte and her husband attended Traverso's sentencing. She and other cyclists in the courtroom were stunned.

The sentence was less than it would have been had Traverso stayed on the scene and been found guilty of DUI manslaughter. There was evidence to suggest Traverso had been drinking before the crash. But because he took off and waited to tell police, there was no way to be sure.

His sentence, Witte said, "was a slap on the wrist."

That's when she sent out her email. Within a month, Witte was huddling with other cyclists and runners, some of whom were activists, attorneys and lobbyists.

"We realized something was wrong with the law," she said. "It gave (Traverso) an incentive to leave the scene, rather than stay behind and possibly face DUI manslaughter charges."

The lawyers in the coalition began drafting proposed changes.

Aaron's widowed wife, Patty, got involved in the effort, too. She was surprised to see so many people, some of whom she didn't know, come together around the issue.

Enda Walsh, Aaron Cohen's riding partner who had been injured in the crash, was also eager to help.

"We had no idea how (the legislative process) worked," Walsh said. "We knew we couldn't just put on our superhero pants and go to Tallahassee and demand change."

Indeed, demanding change in Tallahassee is one thing; getting it done is another. In fact, grass roots groups are rarely able to pass legislation on the first try. The legislative process is notoriously opaque. And in any given year, only a fraction of the proposals introduced make it across the finish line.

That spring, Witte and other activists rode their bicycles from Orlando to Tallahassee to learn about the political process. They met with local lawmakers and observed some of the 2013 legislative session.

Across town, Miami-Dade County Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz was on a parallel track.

An avid cyclist, Diaz had recently passed a county resolution urging the Legislature to increase the penalties for drivers who kill or injure pedestrians and leave the scene. He got wind of the grass roots group and suggested they team up.

Building an army

The cyclists launched a website and petition, and built support on the ground.

Diaz worked his political connections.

"I met with the attorney general, the governor's office," he said. "I met with everyone I could meet with. We created an army."

Diaz de la Portilla agreed to sponsor the bill in the Senate.

Tallahassee veteran and lobbyist Kimberly Case also joined the team. Her firm, Holland and Knight, allowed her to do the work on a pro bono basis.

In October 2013, Traverso was released from jail 100 days early. But the group was not discouraged.

"We weren't going to back down at any cost," Diaz said.

Before the start of the 2014 session, the coalition held a press conference with Attorney General Pam Bondi and law enforcement representatives. Patty Cohen was among the speakers.

"No family should have to suffer like ours has," she told reporters.

By that time, Witte and Walsh were making regular trips to Tallahassee. Diaz was making the rounds in the Capitol, too.

The coalition originally sought to create a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for drivers who leave the scene of an accident in which a person is killed.

But they changed the proposed minimum mandatory sentence to four years — the same as for DUI manslaughter — to assuage concerns from some lawmakers.

"There has been a resistance in both chambers to any type of minimum mandatory sentences because they remove some discretion from the court," Diaz de la Portilla said.

Once tweaked, the bill sailed through its committee stops. It passed on the Senate floor by a unanimous vote March 26. The House gave its unanimous support April 22.

"It's hard to put into words," Witte said. "What Aaron did in his life touched so many people. It's evident in the way people responded to this tragedy."

A healing process

Gov. Rick Scott is likely to sign the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act into law later this month.

The bill could have a wide-ranging effect. In 2012, about 17,000 people were injured in hit-and-run crashes in Florida, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Of that total, 166 died.

For those involved in the Aaron Cohen bill, the legislative process served as a healing process.

"It's what Aaron would have done," said Patty Cohen.

Walsh said he took some solace in helping pass important legislation in his friend's name.

"I have to admit: I'm generally a skeptic," Walsh said. "I was never really sure we could get this thing to pass. But we did. And the beauty of it is, we will never know who benefits from it."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]

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