Hit-and-run sentences vary for offenders

Many drivers who collide with people avoid prison

Keywords: Durango Herald,

Pauline Lehr, 94, suffered head injuries that caused more than $250,000 in medical bills and a two-month hospital stay from a hit-and-run incident in Arapahoe County. Her assailant got a two-year deferred sentence in January 2012.

Jonathan Humildad, 7, was hit by van that fled in September 2012, leaving him lying in the street with the femur bone sticking out of his leg. The driver was sentenced to five years prison in Adams County.

Location can make a difference in sentencing for hit-and-run drivers who leave injured victims behind, according to an analysis by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News and 9News into Colorado’s ongoing hit-and-run epidemic.

The analysis looked at sentences imposed by large judicial districts with enough cases to compare between 2009 and 2013 for the felony charge of hit-and-run resulting in serious injury.

The biggest differences centered on the use of prison time vs. probation, the analysis found.

They ranged from the Adams County judicial district, where 7 of 16 defendants got prison sentences for injury hit-and-run crimes to the Arapahoe/Douglas county district where only 1 of 15 defendants was sentenced to prison.

The other major counties fell somewhere in between – 8 of 23 defendants in Denver, 1 of 8 in Jefferson County and 5 of 13 in El Paso County received prison sentences, the analysis found.

Overall, prison terms were handed down in 27 of 92 cases in Colorado during the five years.

Denver and Adams County accounted for more than half of the prison sentences and 40 percent of all cases.

In Adams County, District Attorney Dave Young considers fleeing the scene an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing recommendations to judges.

“We’ve always taken them very seriously in Adams County,” Young said. “The nature of the hit-and-run case is the lack of taking responsibility.”

In addition, the injured and killed are often random victims, he said.

“The difficult thing is these victims are everyday citizens,” Young said. “They’re not putting themselves in harm’s way by participating in the drug trade or something like that.”

In Arapahoe County, recently elected District Attorney George Brauchler said he has told his prosecutors to toughen plea bargains in all hit-and-run cases.

“These are unique crimes because they are attempts to beat the system,” Brauchler said. “We probably inherited a culture that viewed this as less serious than many of the violent crimes and sex offenses that we prosecuted.”

Brauchler cited the case of Tristen Rogers who was a hit-and-run victim Aug. 25, 2011, while riding her bicycle along Quincy Road in Arapahoe County.

“I felt an impact from behind,” Rogers, athletic director at Hinkley High School, told 9News. “That’s the last thing I remember.”

Her left ankle now has 14 screws holding the bones together.

Joseph Douglas III was charged and convicted by a jury. The judge sentenced him to two years probation. Douglas is appealing that decision, having told police that he thought he hit a deer.

Denise Mowder, a former Oregon prosecutor and now an assistant professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said many factors are considered when deciding whether to seek prison or probation against hit-and-run defendants.

They include the defendant’s intent, the strength of the case, the office’s staffing and the welfare of the victim, Mowder said.

“You have to take care of the offender and punish him as much as you can,” she said. “But you’ve got to think about the next time because if you don’t take care of the underlying problem (such as alcoholism or drug addiction), there will be a next time.

“Sometimes, that means giving the offender that deferred sentence,” she said.

Prosecutors also must weigh prison versus restitution for the victim, especially if large medical bills are involved.

“Judges really want the victim to get back as much as they can and get those bills paid off,” she said.

However, imprisoning offenders makes that tough.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword because it’s making people with money have less prison sentences,” Mowder said.

The analysis of cases showed that Arapahoe County judges and prosecutors went after restitution more often than those in Adams County.

More than 130 people have died in hit-and-run crashes in Colorado since 2008, and the state is on pace this year to equal or exceed the record 34 deaths in 2012. The analysis found that about 1-in-5 hit-and-run drivers were not caught.

In addition, hit-and-run injuries averaged more than one a day between 2011 and 2013 in the metro Denver core.

For Rogers, one of the injured, the discomfort is a constant reminder of what she endured.

“Eighty-five percent is my new 100,” she said.

The Durango Herald brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news. Contact Burt Hubbard at bhubbard@inewsnetwork.org.