Hit and run: Does law encourage drunken drivers to flee?

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When the driver of a BMW smashed into a cyclist and then got out of his car to open his trunk last month, witnesses thought he was going to get something, "like a blanket," according to police accident reports.

Instead, police say he left the trunk open so that his license plate could not be seen, got back into the car and drove away. His victim was left unconscious on Wasatch Boulevard.

The charges that followed: Three misdemeanors.

The March 19 crash could have been charged as a felony in most other states. A recent state-by-state review by the National Conference of State Legislatures found Utah's hit-and-run laws are among the weakest in the nation.

Law enforcement officers say Utah's traffic statutes actually benefit an impaired driver who hits someone and leaves the scene. If a driver is caught or confesses after the drugs or alcohol are no longer detectable, he or she may face only misdemeanor charges -- even if the victim dies.

If a driver stays at the scene and is found to be drunk, charges could include felony automobile homicide and enhanced DUI charges if there are previous drunk-driving convictions.

"The DUI crimes are handled pretty seriously," said Alicia Cook, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake County prosecutor's office.

Leaving the scene could reduce a drunk driver's punishment from a felony DUI sentence of up to 5 years to a misdemeanor sentence of one year or less.

"How do you go back and prove [drunkenness]? That's difficult," said Salt Lake County sheriff's spokesman Don Hutson. "If it's clear that someone's injured, [the driver] looks at the guy and leaves, that should be a felony."

The legislature modified the law this year to charge leaving the scene of an accident as a felony if the victim is injured or dies -- but only if the driver has a previous conviction for driving under the influence.

The law's sponsor, Rep. Christopher Herrod, R-Provo, said he wanted to make the crime a felony for any driver, but the cost to prosecute and imprison those motorists -- up to $93,800 a year according to fiscal analysts -- would have caused the bill to fail.

"Anything with a fiscal note this year was pretty much dead on arrival," Herrod said.

One Springville family sees the costs of the crime differently.

Josh Evans, 17, was riding his bike near his home in April 2007 when a car hit him and drove away, leaving him with his skull cracked from ear to ear.

The driver and his brother, Aldo and Edwin Ruiz-Gomez, pushed the car over an embankment in Spanish Fork Canyon, but detectives later traced the wreckage back to them.

The only felony conviction in the case was possession of forged writing. The two were in the country illegally and have been deported, said Evans.

Since the crash, Evans has been learning to work around the cognitive function and memory loss he suffered in the brain trauma.

"My grades dropped dramatically just from the accident," he said. "Things didn't go very well for the past two years."

When he returned to school the next fall, he began failing classes. He said he became frustrated and aggressive and was admitted to a state psychiatric hospital after he took his parents' car for an illegal spin about 6 months ago.

"He went from being mild and easy-going [before the crash] to doing crazy things," said his mother, Angela.

Now Evans is getting straight A's in an independent study program through the Nebo school district, he said. The lasting effects: Josh's lost senses of smell and taste, and an enormous financial cost for the Evanses.

The Ruiz-Gomez brothers had no insurance.

"The full burden of expense fell on us," Angela Evans said.

No financial help for hit-and-run victims

Hit-and-run victims are not eligible for monetary assistance through the state's Office of Crime Victim Reparations unless the driver hit the victim deliberately or was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash, said interim office director Gary Scheller.

State law requires the fund go to victims of "criminal injurious conduct," Scheller said. There is a specific provision for DUI victims, but not for hit-and-run crashes, which are ineligible as motor vehicle accidents.

"Intuitively, it doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.

Weakest statutes in the nation

Utah is one of seven states that have no felony charge for leaving the scene of an accident, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It is the only state without a felony charge for leaving the scene of a fatal accident.