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Miami-Dade: Mandatory Jail For Hit & Run Drivers

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(Source: CBS4)

(Source: CBS4)

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MIAMI (CBS4) – FIU Doctoral Candidate Ana Mares was able to survive breast cancer, but could not survive the driver who hit her March 22nd in Brickell and kept on going. The hit and run killer remains on the loose.

Two days after Mares, 49, was killed, someone in a white SUV hit 53 year-old Alejandro Hermis as he rode his bicycle in North Miami. The driver stopped just long enough to untangle the dead man and his bike from the car. He, too, is still on the loose.

“It’s become like an epidemic. I myself am a cyclist and I’ve almost been hit four times in the last two months,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz Tuesday, just before introducing a resolution calling on the state to impose minimum, mandatory prison sentences on those convicted of hit and run where someone is hurt or killed.

The proposal calls for a mandatory sentence of 10 years for those convicted of fleeing a fatal accident, and 7 years for a driver who drives away from one with injury.

“We couldn’t be more on board with you,” Mickey Witte, a road safety activist told Diaz Tuesday.

“We’re going to work this hard,” Diaz said.

The effort to impose automatic prison for hit and run offenders is propelled largely by the case of Aaron Cohen. The husband and father of two was killed on the Rickenbacker Causeway last year by Michelle Traverso who did not stop.

Traverso drove his heavily damaged car to his parents’ condo and concealed it beneath a tan tarp. He waited 18 hours to turn himself into police – too late for investigators to check for alcohol or drugs in his system.

Traverso, already in a court-imposed drug program after a cocaine arrest, was sentenced to less than a year in the county jail for fleeing the scene of the fatal accident.

“The sentence in this particular case was an injustice,” said an incredulous Steve Cohen, the victim’s father on the day of the sentencing.

Tuesday, activist Witte of the group AaronCohenLaw.org, said the Cohen death underscores the need for mandatory sentencing.

“His two little children, who are under the age of three, are never going to know their father, and his murderer is only going to be in jail, not even prison, for 364 days.” Witte said.

Also in attendance at Tuesday’s commission meeting was Helen Witty. Her daughter, 16 year-old Helen Marie, was killed by a drunk driver who hit her as she roller skated on the walking path along Red Road in Pinecrest in June, 2000.

Carla Wagner, the teenage driver did not flee, but Helen Marie’s mother supports the get-tough proposal for hit and run offenders.

“Right now, the law rewards those who leave the scene, because they face lesser penalties than they would if they were arrested for drunk driving,” said Witty, who now works full-time with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.).

Some cautioned Tuesday about the perils of possible unintended consequences behind the proposed legislation.

“When you impose mandatory minimum terms, sometimes it’s hard to get a conviction,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman, who is also a former state lawmaker.

Heyman said judges and prosecutors often bargain more serious cases down when they know a conviction leaves their hands tied on sentencing.

That being said, the resolution passed the commission by a unanimous vote.

“We need to hold people accountable and responsible,” said Commissioner Estaban Bovo in supporting the measure.

It is unlikely a hit and run law will make it through the current legislature. It is too late to be introduced separately, and would have to be attached to a bill dealing with texting and driving. Backers of the texting measure don’t want to risk its passage by distracting colleagues with another issue.

Supporters of the hit and run effort say they expect Sen. Rene Garcia of Miami to introduce a bill in next year’s legislative session.

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