PD Editorial: Make hit-and-run a felony for anyone

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Perpetrators of hit-and-run traffic crashes violate their basic obligations as drivers, as citizens and as human beings. These violations are becoming more frequent locally and across the nation. The California Legislature ought to stiffen a law that perversely shields some hit-and-run drivers, allowing them to receive relatively light punishments for their crimes.

State law currently treats fleeing the scene of a crash that causes death or injury as a “wobbler” — one that prosecutors can charge as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Assembly Bill 582 would make the crime of hit-and-run a straight-up felony, resulting in longer prison sentences.

AB 582 was headed toward legislative oblivion until last Tuesday, when Susan Gladding of Clovis testified before the Assembly Committee on Public Safety in Sacramento. A hit-and-run driver killed her husband, Gavin, last year. The driver received a three-year prison sentence but will probably serve only half that time.

The driver was believed to have been drinking before the crime. By the time of his arrest, there wasn’t enough evidence of drunken driving. Such evidence might have supported charges of manslaughter or negligent homicide.

The case shows how one crime can cover another: Current law “incentivizes the driver to flee the scene,” Susan Gladding testified. If AB 582 — dubbed “Gavin’s Law” by supporters— had been in effect, the driver would have faced six to eight years in prison. Following her testimony, the committee set aside its vote against AB 582 and agreed to give it another hearing in the coming weeks.

Each member of the Legislature can find a victim like Gavin Gladding in his or her district. A record 337 Californians were killed in hit-and-run crashes in 2016, according to the AAA Foundation for Public Safety. The numbers are on the rise nationwide and include five fatalities in Santa Rosa within the past year.

These victims have names. The most recent was 25-year-old Michael John Campbell, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver early March 15 while walking along Highway 12.

In October, Jenell Marie Davis, 39, died after a driver fled the scene of a crash at the intersection of Stony Point and Occidental roads. One month earlier, the drivers of two cars fled after striking and killing Mathew Thomas Eck, 37, at the same intersection.

Lusiano Garcia, 35, was bicycling on Stony Point Road in July when he was hit and killed by two separate vehicles. And in July, 88-year-old Jose Sanchez Lorenzo died at the hands of a hit-and-run driver while using the crosswalk at Santa Rosa Avenue and Court Street.

Leaving someone to suffer or die after a crash is a cowardly and callous act, but the current law can make it a rational choice for some drivers, especially those who have been drinking or using drugs. Even if they’re arrested for hit-and-run later, the punishment promises to be lighter than the penalty for causing death or injury while intoxicated. They might well get off with a misdemeanor.

AB 582 would alter that calculus for at least some hit- and-run drivers, allowing victims and survivors to obtain a greater measure of justice. The Legislature should approve “Gavin’s Law.”

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