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REWARDING BAD BEHAVIOR

Justice can become one of the victims of hit-and-run accidents because of a legal loophole that rewards intoxicated drivers for leaving the scene rather than staying to help their victims. That unintended loophole needs to be closed.

Community outrage over the plea bargain earlier this month that gave attorney Drew V. Tidwell a one-year sentence for the death of bicyclist Donald Fruehauf is understandable. But that rage should target a fundamental flaw in the system rather than the specific deal reached in the case.

If an intoxicated driver hits someone and then stays to help, the driver faces drunken-driving charges that could well escalate to more serious charges such as vehicular manslaughter. However, if there are no witnesses, the driver can reduce the possibility of a longer jail term by going home and sleeping it off.

Then, when the driver admits culpability, prosecutors are limited to a leaving-the-scene charge, which carries a lesser sentence than charges related to drunken driving that results in injury or death.

Without witnesses who could definitively put Tidwell behind the wheel and testify he was driving dangerously, prosecutors had little more than a circumstantial case. Without witnesses there was not enough evidence for a charge of vehicular manslaughter. Because Tidwell left the scene -- the charge to which he pled guilty -- there was no blood-test evidence at all to link alcohol to the accident.

Tidwell will get a year in prison for his guilty plea to a Class E felony that carries a maximum penalty of four years. Had he been charged with vehicular manslaughter, a Class D felony, he would have faced a prison term of 2 1/3 to 7 years.

This case aside, this community should be even more deeply concerned over laws that say, as Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark noted, "that in some cases a person can benefit from leaving the scene of an accident."

That's the wrong message. It puts a penalty on moral conduct -- stopping to render aid to the injured, and acknowledging involvement. It rewards those "smart" enough to know the loopholes.

Changing the crime of "leaving the scene of an accident" from a Class E to a Class D felony would put it on a par with vehicular manslaughter. That would make the penalties faced by someone who flees the scene of a traffic fatality at least equal to the penalties he or she would face by staying.

Panic may cause some drivers to flee the scene of a tragic accident, and there can be times when a driver genuinely is unaware of a collision. But such mitigating factors, especially if accident involvement is reported within a reasonable amount of time, can be addressed both in the choice of charges and in the range of possible sentences.

By stiffening the penalties for leaving the scene of an accident, lawmakers can close the gap between the moral and the "smart" thing to do.

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