On Tuesday, April 22, the Florida House of Representatives unanimously voted in favor of enacting the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, legislation that stiffens penalties for hit-and-run drivers. This follows the March 26 unanimous vote of the Florida Senate in favor of the Act, which will now go to the Governor’s desk for approval and signature. The Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act is the product of an unfortunate death of a cyclist who was hit while riding on the Rickenbacker Causeway in February 2012.
The hit-and-run driver, who was on probation for cocaine charges and was driving with a suspended license, had been carousing at a bar in Coconut Grove shortly before the 6 AM accident. After he hit the deceased person and another cyclist, the driver did not stop to offer assistance or wait for the authorities. Instead, he continued his journey home, where he concealed the damaged vehicle under a tarp. By the time he eventually surrendered to authorities, 18 hours after the accident, the police were unable to take a timely blood alcohol test. Inability to ascertain the driver’s blood alcohol level helped him avoid manslaughter charges. The driver eventually pled guilty to charges of driving with a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident involving death, and leaving the scene of an accident involving great bodily harm. The driver was sentenced to only one year in prison and only served 264 days of the sentence.
The Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act seeks to eliminate the incentive hit-and-run drivers have in leaving the scene of an accident. The new law amends Florida’s Leaving the Scene of an Accident Law, which was enacted in 1971. The law creates a mandatory minimum sentence of three, seven, or 10 years for leaving the scene of an accident, depending on whether a person was injured, seriously injured, or fatally injured. The legislation also increases the mandatory minimum sentence for leaving the scene of an accident while under the influence of alcohol from two years to 10 years and provides for a three-year revocation of the offender’s license. By imposing these mandatory minimums, lawmakers hope that hit-and-run drivers, especially those under the influence of alcohol or drugs, will no longer see any incentive in fleeing.
While the law is named after a single victim, hit-and-run accidents are a pervasive problem in Florida, especially South Florida. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, there were approximately 70,000 hit-and-run crashes in the state in 2012. In Miami-Dade County alone, there were an estimated 35 hit-and-run accidents every day in 2012. Although most crashes result in only property damage, there were 163 fatalities in hit-and-run crashes in 2012. In 2011 and 2012, there were 92 fatal hit-and-run accidents in the South Florida tri-county area. Although this legislation focuses on criminal law issues, incentivizing drivers to stay after a crash will be beneficial for reasons beyond being tough on crime. As noted above, most hit-and-run accidents result in only property damage. While the new law is directly focused on accidents resulting in injury or death, the law, by creating the general incentive to stay, would help recovery for all sorts of damage, since it is obviously easier to identify someone for insurance or civil suit purposes if he or she actually stays.
Unfortunately, even with these changes to the Leaving the Scene of an Accident Law, some drivers will likely continue to flee in hope of evading responsibility. Although Florida’s no-fault insurance scheme will provide some relief under the circumstances, the absconding driver is still responsible for the personal and property damage he or she has caused. Just because a driver has fled does not mean recovery is impossible. If you’ve been injured in a hit-and-run accident and would like to know your options for finding the driver and getting full recovery for your damages, click here or call 1-855-800-8000 for a free consultation. The South Florida motor vehicle accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky are prepared to hear your story and offer guidance.