It's a heinous act, driving under the influence and fleeing the scene of an accident in which you have caused an injury or death. But in Utah, the punishment doesn't fit the crime. As long as you're sober by the time you surrender or are apprehended, it's a misdemeanor offense punishable by a prison sentence of a year or less.
But if you do the right thing -- stop, call 911 and render assistance to the victim until help arrives -- you'll pay a much steeper price. If found to be driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you could face felony vehicular homicide or enhanced DUI charges, and serve a much, much longer sentence.
Utah's hit and run laws, according to a study conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, are among the weakest in the nation. They create a scenario in which impaired, narcissistic hit-and-run drivers benefit from going home, sleeping it off and trying to avoid arrest, or turning themselves in when they're sober. It's a cold, callous, uncaring, morally reprehensible act rewarded by our justice system.
That could have, and should have, changed during the last session of the Utah Legislature.
Rep. Christopher Herrod, R-Provo, sponsor of House Bill 237, had hoped to change the criminal code to make it a felony offense for any driver to leave the scene of an accident in which another party is injured or dies. That makes sense, because whether the driver is stoned or stone-cold sober, it's a horrible crime worthy of a stiff sentence.
But in the end, Herrod's bill was amended. In its altered state, a felony charge will only be allowed in cases in which the suspect has a prior conviction for driving under the influence.
Why the changes, when Herrod got it right the first time? Because, according to a legislative fiscal analyst, it would cost an estimated $93,800 a year to prosecute and imprison the additional perpetrators if there were no exclusions.
Astonishingly, that's a price that state lawmakers weren't willing to pay. "Anything with a fiscal note this year was pretty much dead on arrival," Herrod explained.
We realize that tax receipts are down, that difficult cuts are being made, that lawmakers are mandated to balance the budget. We applaud the Legislature for keeping spending in check during the 2009 session.
But lawmakers made a mistake by amending this bill. That $93,800 is just a drop in a $10.6 billion bucket. And it's a small price to pay to remove the incentive for motorists to leave victims dying on the side of the road.