Bill stiffens penalties for hit-and-runs

TOPEKA — A House committee plans to move forward with a bill to increase penalties for leaving the scene of a traffic crash, but not before rewriting it to clear up ambiguity about what people should do after an accident.

Committee members heard testimony from families of people killed in hit-and-run accidents as they considered House Bill 2044.

The bill would make it a felony, with presumptive prison time, for a driver to leave the scene of an accident that involves a fatality or major injuries. It would be a misdemeanor to leave the scene of an accident involving only property damage or minor injuries.

The change is needed largely because of tougher penalties for driving under the influence.

In fact, state law, which now presumes probation for hit-and-run, encourages motorists in drunken driving crashes to leave the scene, said Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson.

"Drivers know if they are under the influence and they hit something or someone, they can avoid more serious charges by fleeing the accident scene instead of stopping and giving assistance or rendering aid," Branson testified. "If a driver is capable of delaying their contact with law enforcement, it lessens their chances of being held responsible for their actions. Alcohol and drugs dissipate from the offender's system, making breath and blood tests useless in prosecution."

Statewide, there were 31,681 hit-and-run accidents from 2004 to 2008. Of those 35 involved fatalities and 4,551 involved injuries, according to Transportation Department figures.

Lawrence, a university town with a large population of young people and an active night life, has been especially hard-hit by hit-and-runs.

"It (the bill) is here before you today because we have experienced some very terrible tragedies involving hit-and-run accidents," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who is sponsoring the measure.

Family members who lost loved ones in hit-and-run crashes said they were anguished by the deaths and then again when the people responsible avoided substantial punishment by fleeing the scene.

"On Oct. 16, 2009, my wife's sister, Rachel Leek, 20 years old, was hit and killed in Lawrence by a drunk driver who never stopped to help her in any way, did not alert the authorities, call emergency services, remain at or return to the scene of the accident," said Jeffrey Stolz of Lawrence. "Currently, in the state of Kansas, the penalty for this crime, fleeing the scene, is six month's probation without even the possibility for jail time."

Ryan Crum, also of Lawrence, displayed a picture of his father, Thomas, killed in a hit-and-run in 2008.

"A driver pulled out from a stop sign, hit my father's vehicle from the side and sent it head-on into a brick building," he testified.

As in the Leek case, the motorist "left my father there to suffer alone and ultimately die," he said.

Although detectives had bar security video of the man drinking before the crash, they couldn't prove he was drunk at the time, Crum said.

He said the man did ultimately admit to DUI in a plea bargain, but served only two weeks in jail.

Members of the House Committee on Corrections and Criminal Justice were sympathetic to the families and appeared ready to approve the enhanced penalties.

But the bill will be sent back for some rewriting before that happens.

In adding property- and vehicle-damage accidents to the list of hit-and-run crimes that could be prosecuted, some changes appeared to make it unclear whether drivers in minor fender-benders could be prosecuted if they moved their cars out of the flow of traffic — which is what they're supposed to do if possible.

Committee members also questioned whether the bill as written would make it a crime for a driver in a single-car accident on a rural road to leave the scene to go get help.

After the hearing, Assistant Attorney General Karen Wittman, who helped draft the bill, said the measure is complex, that any ambiguity was unintended, and that supporters would welcome clarifying language.

Committee Chairwoman Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, directed the staff to draft a substitute bill and bring it back for a vote to send it to the full House.

Colloton also said she wanted the substitute bill to incorporate two ideas proposed by family members during the hearing: the addition of a mandatory $1,000 fine and court rules to make it harder for hit-and-run drivers to escape punishment by claiming they didn't know that they had hit someone.