Florida Senate panel OKs tougher penalties for hit-and-run drivers

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJanuary 10, 2014 

A bill seeking to create tougher penalties for hit-and-run drivers won approval from the Senate Transportation and Highway Safety Subcommittee on Thursday.

The proposal is being called the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act in memory of a Miami cyclist killed in a hit-and-run crash in 2012.

Proponents say the measure is needed because Florida law gives drunk drivers involved in fatal accidents an incentive to leave the scene. The driver who fatally struck Cohen was sentenced to 364 days in jail for taking off after the crash. He would have faced a minimum of four years had he been found guilty of DUI manslaughter. (Police suspected he had been drinking.)

The version of the bill that came before the Senate panel on Thursday looked slightly different from the original draft. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, first proposed a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for leaving the scene of a crash with fatalities.

He amended the term to four years in a strike-all amendment.

"At the very least, you have the proportionality with [the penalty for] DUI manslaughter," Diaz de la Portilla said. "There is no incentive to flee."

He added: "This is about protecting people not wearing a metal exoskeleton.”

Enda Walsh, who was riding with Cohen at the time of the crash, expressed his support for the bill Thursday, as did Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz.

"Somehow, the information became it is easier to take a gamble and leave the scene, than it is to stand there and face the consequences," Diaz told the Senate panel. "This is one bill that is actually going to save lives."

The bill passed by a 10-0 vote.

It must now win the support of the Senate Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Justice Appropriations Subcommittee and Economic Affairs Committee.

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