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Proposed Bill Would Rid Florida Of The Incentive To Flee A Hit-And-Run

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Fatal hit and runs have become so common in South Florida that at least one state lawmaker is asking for stiffer sentences to try to stem them.

Statistics show that deadly hit and runs occur nearly once a week in the tri-county area.

Alarmed by an increase in such crashes, state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has introduced legislation that would impose tougher mandatory sentences on guilty drivers.

The law also would close what some analysts call a "punishment gap" between two Florida laws. Under current state statutes, drivers in DUI crashes that kill someone face a harsher penalty than drivers who leave the scene of a deadly accident.

"There is an incentive to flee and show up later when the alcohol clears the system," said Diaz de la Portilla, saying the legislation would address the disparities. "The law should not make it easier on you because you left the scene."

Diaz de la Portilla has filed the "Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act," which honors a bicyclist struck down on Miami's Rickenbacker Causeway in November 2012.

The bill would increase the mandatory minimum jail sentences for those convicted of leaving the scene of an accident, including a 10-year minimum for a hit-and-run resulting in death. Under current law, there is no minimum mandatory sentence for leaving the scene of a fatality, according to L. Elijah Stiers, a personal injury attorney who helped draft the legislation.

"We thought it best to take an aggressive posture because something has got to be done," Stiers said.

The bill also requires that the drivers have their licenses suspended for a minimum of three years and be required take a driver-education course.

Many hit and runs, including fatalities, are never solved. But arrests are made in others.

Among the latest hit-and-run cases is that of Kevin E. Gilliam Jr., a 29-year-old Fort Lauderdale motorcyclist who died Nov. 10 when a car turned in front of him as he was riding on West Broward Boulevard.

The driver jumped out of his 2008 Ford Focus and ran. Fort Lauderdale police said a suspect in the case, Christopher Earl Martin, 51, was arrested Friday on an unrelated out-of-county warrant. Other charges were pending, they said.

"Only a coward would run," said Estelle Bashford-Hyman, 52, Gilliam's mother. "It is so selfish. If you hit someone, stay around.

"Maybe if the driver had stuck around, he could have helped save him," she said. "You never know."

Consider:

--Last year there were some 70,000 hit-and-run crashes in Florida, up by about 500 from the year before, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

--Fatalities also rose, from 162 in 2011 to 168 in 2012, the FHP said.

--Motorists didn't stop to help in 92 deadly collisions in 2011 and 2012 in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, the FHP said.

Earlier this year, the FHP launched an effort to heighten awareness of hit-and-run collisions. The campaign, called "Hit and Run. From Bad 2 Worse," will be rolled out again in February. "At first it's just a crash, but the moment you decide to leave you make yourself a criminal," FHP Capt. Nancy Rasmussen said.

Last month, after a hit-and-run driver ran down 12-year-old Shania Miracle Jackson in Hallandale Beach, a suspect surrendered eight days later, after his lawyer contacted police.

Free on bond, Fernando Mayers, 25, of Hallandale Beach, is charged with vehicular homicide; leaving the scene of a crash involving death; and driving while license suspended or revoked as a habitual offender involving death.

Experts say they wonder if the increase in hit-and-run crashes reflects changes in society.

"Some individuals may unfortunately begin to accept the idea of self-preservation over the importance of doing what is morally right," Palm Beach Gardens psychologist Kristin Tolbert said.

Markus Wagner, a University of Miami law professor, said, "It seems that doing the right thing, which is to stay at the scene to provide basic help, is not the generally agreed upon course of action."

One South Florida case that has garnered much attention involves wealthy Palm Beach County polo executive John Goodman.

Last year Goodman was convicted of DUI manslaughter by a jury that found he was drunk behind the wheel of his Bentley convertible on Feb. 12, 2010, when he slammed into the car of a 23-year-old University of Central Florida graduate. The car flipped into a canal, and Goodman left the driver to drown, prosecutors alleged.

Sentenced to 16 years in prison, Goodman, now 50, won a new trial when his lawyers successfully alleged juror misconduct. His second trial is to begin early next year.

Diaz de la Portilla said he was prompted to push for stiffer penalties because of the death of the bicyclist in last year's Rickenbacker Causeway crash.

"I hear from constituents all the time about how dangerous it is to be a cyclist, jogger or walker," Diaz de la Portilla said.

The vast majority of hit-and-run crashes involve property damage.

"People panic," said attorney Dean Freeman, who often represents crash victims. "They flee because they don't have insurance, or they have a warrant. They are hoping they will get away, won't ever get caught."

Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

mwclary@tribune.com ___

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