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Some worry hole exists in hit-run bill

State Sen. Victor Crist's bill to send hit-and-run drivers to prison for a minimum of two years drew praise from groups that saw injustice in the Jennifer Porter case.

Others criticized it, saying the bill would tie judges' hands.

Some local lawyers see a different issue altogether.

They question a possible loophole in the proposal that could benefit drunken drivers.

The bill allows hit-and-run offenders 24 hours to turn themselves in before the mandatory sentencing guideline kicks in.

Some think that could let drivers sober up or go home and hide any illegal drugs they might have in the car.

"I think the spirit of the bill is highly commendable," said Rick Terrana, a criminal defense lawyer from Tampa. "I think the wording is horrific."

If a drunken driver leaves the scene of an accident and calls police in hour 23, he said, the driver's blood-alcohol content would be below the legal limit, and he has to face only the charge of leaving the scene.

"I'm sure that that's not what was intended" Terrana said. "But having been in this business 20 years, I know that's what's going to happen more often than a person leaving the scene because of a crowd or because of safety. That's the reality of the bill."

Ty Trayner, a criminal defense lawyer who litigates traffic cases, agreed.

Most people who hit and run either have an invalid license or have been drinking, he said.

"And if they hit a parked car or something that has been occupied," he said, leaving the scene might appear to be the smarter thing to do, to avoid a potentially harsher sentence from a judge for crashes involving drinking.

But Crist, R-Tampa, said the Wilkins-Caldwell Act - so named for the two brothers killed after a March 2004 crash in which Porter pleaded guilty to leaving the scene - does not weaken the law.

"We're toughening it," said Crist, chairman of the Senate Justice Appropriations Committee. "What the law is saying is that they can no longer get away with (no prison time). After 24 hours, you're going to serve some time."

The bill calls for a mandatory two years for drivers who cause injury and four years for death.

Porter, who taught dance at Muller Elementary School, waited 28 hours to call a lawyer and four days before publicly coming forward after the 2004 accident.

After her guilty plea, a judge sentenced her to two years of community control, three years of probation and 500 hours of community service.

Crist said no one likes minimum mandatory sentences.

In crafting the bill, the Legislature would want to apply it carefully, he said. He said the grace period exists to allow a driver, afraid of retaliation by an angry crowd at the accident scene, to go home, calm down and call police.

"A lot of times, people panic at that moment, and they get home and say, "You really need to deal with this,' " Crist said.

Laws on the books already call for as much as 15 years of imprisonment for leaving the scene of an accident.

Crist said this doesn't change that. He said the problem is that judges don't give tough enough sentences.

"We're no longer going to let people plea bargain themselves into a probation, watching TV," Crist said.

If a hit-and-run driver comes forward within the 24-hour grace period, he would be at the judge's discretion when it comes to sentencing.

Crist's proposal caught the attention of Norman P. Patterson, a retired ophthalmologist living in Clearwater. He's all for harsher prison sentences.

But he, too, thinks the waiting period defeats the purpose.

"If you're drinking, your penalty is much worse than if it were a pure accident," said Peterson, 64. "By giving the guy time to go home, you don't know if he was sober or not."

Terrana said the grace period should be shorter.

"Drive out of the neighborhood and drive to the closest safe haven and make the call," he said. "Everyone has cell phones. Call police and say, "Here's what happened; meet me down the street.' "

Tom Parnell, the lawyer who represented Lisa Wilkins, mother of 13-year-old Bryant Wilkins and 3-year-old Durontae Caldwell, who died the night Porter left the scene, said he doesn't understand Crist's logic.

"The majority of people that leave the scene of the accident do so because they have something to hide," he said. "Most of the time, it's to secret the fact that they have been drinking."

Twenty-four hours would allow a hit-and-run driver the chance to also hide any illegal drugs he might have in his vehicle, Parnell said.

"To give you 24 hours, I don't know what that accomplishes," Parnell said. "I don't know if I agree with that."

In his research, Crist said, he hadn't found a judge who gave more than a year in jail to a hit-and-run offender.

Facing at least two years behind bars by waiting to call police should make a driver want to stay at the scene, he said.

At least then he can still bargain with the judge for a lesser sentence.

Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sppimes.com.

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