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As hit-and-run cases multiply, is Florida law to blame?

Pasco County Sheriff's Deputy Darren R. Hill was severely injured on New Year's Eve when his cruiser was hit head on by a motorist who then fled the scene.
Pasco County Sheriff's Deputy Darren R. Hill was severely injured on New Year's Eve when his cruiser was hit head on by a motorist who then fled the scene.
Published Jan. 5, 2014

By itself, there is nothing wrong with the state's hit-and-run law.

It is everyday people who have turned it into something in dire need of repair. Callous, cowardly and, presumably, completely intoxicated people.

Jan. 1: At 4:22 a.m. a pickup truck in Wesley Chapel crossed a center line and hit a Pasco County Sheriff's vehicle head-on. With a broken arm, two broken legs and other injuries, Deputy Darren R. Hill somehow activated an emergency button on his radio to summon help. Meanwhile the driver of the pickup, who deputies say had just left a New Year's Eve party, fled the scene with Hill still stuck in the mangled car. Seven hours passed before the suspect was found and arrested.

Leaving the scene of an accident involving a death is, appropriately, a serious matter in Florida. It is a first-degree felony punishable by as little as 21 months and as many as 30 years in prison. It is not, however, as serious as being convicted of DUI manslaughter, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of four years.

Do you know what you call that?

An incentive to flee, no matter how many broken or dying bodies you leave behind.

Even nonfatal accidents reward hit-and-run drivers with similar or lesser penalties than those convicted of DUI.

When you think of it that way, the only reason for an impaired driver to stick around is his/her own sense of compassion and responsibility for the carnage they have created.

Because, otherwise, they have a chance of completely escaping charges if there are no witnesses or evidence left behind. And even if they are later caught, or turn themselves in, a DUI conviction is difficult when there is a significant time gap before an arrest.

In the most basic terms, our current statutes favor drunken drivers coldblooded enough to run away.

Dec. 27: A little past midnight, a passing motorist found 25-year-old Thomas Dean Woods dead in the grass next to a Seffner road and near a piece of truck wreckage. Eight hours would pass before a suspect walked into a Tampa jail to turn himself in.

The number of hit-and-run accidents is on the rise, according to figures released last year by the Florida Highway Patrol. There were more than 8,000 combined in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties in 2012, an average of more than 20 per day.

A good portion of those were as minor as a fender bender in a parking lot, but the number of hit-and-run deaths is also creeping up. Statewide, there was an average of 3.2 people killed every week by a hit-and-run driver.

This is why state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, wants to revamp Florida's hit-and-run statute. He will pursue SB-102 in the upcoming legislative session, turning any hit-and-run conviction into a felony offense and raising the mandatory minimum sentence to three years for any injury, seven years for a serious injury and 10 years for a death.

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The proposed law has been dubbed the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, so named for a bicyclist who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Miami in 2012.

The car's driver, who had been at a bar before the accident, turned himself in a day later. Since DUI manslaughter was impossible to prove after the fact, he was given a seemingly absurd sentence of 21 months.

"Anything that can help law enforcement with hit-and-run cases would be great because right now they are very difficult and frustrating,'' said Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco.

"The way it stands now it's like a college class where they pose philosophical questions: If you are driving under the influence and facing however-many-years in prison, would you stop and make a phone call to help a person you just hit, who may be dying in the road? Basically, are you more worried about that person's survival, or your own well-being?''

Dec. 16: Bicyclist Craig Camlin is struck on a Fort Lauderdale street by a 2003 Ford Mustang and flips over the car's roof. Even as he is wedged between the car's spoiler and back window, the driver continues down the road for two more miles until he reaches home. The driver then pulls Camlin off the car and leaves him behind a trash bin where he is found 2 ½ hours later. Doctors tell Camlin's family he will likely be a quadriplegic if he survives. The driver is arrested later that day after taking his car to a body shop for repairs. He eventually admits to police he had been drinking before the accident.