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Hit-and-run Drivers Kill, but Prison is Often Avoided in California

 Hit-and-run Drivers Kill, but Prison is Often AvoidedCriminals Avoid Prison Sentences. Hit-and-run Crash Victims Pay Ultimate Price

Hit-and-run Crashes in California — When George Ronald Nicoletti realized he had struck and killed Robert Meurer on Moorpark Street, instead of stopping to help the dying man he took off.

Nicoletti, 55, was behind the wheel of a tan four-door 1998 Saturn Ion. He struck the 65-year-old singer-songwriter and educator back in September 2016. Meurer later died at the hospital the following morning.

Meanwhile, Nicoletti didn’t surrender to police, even after they released a photo of him as a person of interest. Instead, after a long investigation he was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department on Oct. 10th for the Studio City crash.

Under California law, Nicoletti faced up to four years in prison for leaving the scene of a collision involving a death.

Instead, Nicoletti plead no contest and was sentenced on Dec. 10th to three years of formal probation and 18 months of mental health counseling as part of the negotiations set by prosecutors. He completely avoided any jail time.

The sad thing is, he is not alone. More often than not, hit-and-run drivers in California who are caught, wind up escaping any meaningful justice. Meanwhile, the victims and their families are the ones who pay the ultimate price.

“There is no justice for the victims if the legal system let’s criminals get away with their deaths,” said Attorney James Johnson, a California personal injury attorney. “Certainly a victim may have the right to sue a criminal in civil court, but oftentimes these drivers have no insurance or minimal limits. It’s hardly justice and the punishment does not fit the crime.”

 Hit-and-run Drivers Kill, but Prison is Often AvoidedOne Year in Jail for Death of Pasadena Woman

Just two years after Meurer’s death, Francisco Javier Soto-Cedillo, 24, received a one-year county jail sentence with one year of supervised release. A light sentence for felony hit-and-run in the death of Jessica Torres, 27, of Pasadena. He reportedly struck the Pasadena woman crossing North Fair Oaks Avenue outside of a crosswalk on Oct. 21, 2018. Police located a white sport-utility vehicle with major front-end damage in front of Soto-Cedillow’s home. He initially denied being the suspect driver who killed Torres. However, seven months later in May 2019 he agreed to a plea deal and admitted to charges of felony hit-and-run.

While not every hit-and-run driver gets off with a light sentence, too many are able to avoid prison time at. Others serve a year or less by taking plea deals offered to them by prosecutors.

The plea bargains that often lead to these light sentences are often due to courts having huge caseloads. Also, prosecutors may choose to offer pleas when they have insufficient evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather than risk losing a case, they opt to have some guarantee of accountability.

Hit-and-run Crash Statistics

Indeed, on average, there were 682,000 hit-and-run crashes between 2006 and 2017 in the United States. The statistics are compiled by the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) 2018 Hit-and-Run Crashes Research Brief.

Government sources and the legal community say that suspects charged with fatal hit-and-run crimes regularly take plea deals offered to them that permit them to avoid any significant jail time.

In California, which ranks 7th in the nation on a per capita basis for hit-and-run crimes, there were 337 hit-and-run crashses that resulted in deaths in 2016. Nationwide, there were 2,049 hit-and-run deaths in 2016, according to AAA. It’s the highest number the state has ever seen and a 60-percent increase over 2009. The majority of the hit-and-run crashes or 65 percent, were pedestrians or bicyclists.

Proposed LawWould Give Longer Mandatory 6 to 8  Year Sentence to Hit-and-run Drivers

 Hit-and-run Drivers Kill, but Prison is Often AvoidedThese light sentences have not sat well with victims and relatives of those who died in California hit-and-run crashes.

In fact, the relatives of Gavin Gladding felt that the 3-year sentence handed to the driver who killed him was a joke. Rogelio Alvarez Maravilla’s passenger who was his accomplice, was given 210 days for her role in helping the driver hide evidence that linked them to the former  Clovis Unified School District vice principal’s death. Gladding was jogging on Friant Road on Sept. 16, 2016 when Rogelio Maravilla struck and killed him.

Gladding’s family urged the California legislature to require stiffer sentences. They suggested hit-and-run drivers receive up to six years if a serious injury is involved and 8 years for a death. The fines would remain at between $1,000 and $10,000.

Assembly Member Jim Patterson introduced Assembly Bill 582 (Gavin’s Law) so that criminals who leave the scene of an accident will face stricter prison sentences. Fellow Valley legislators, Assembly Members Adam Gray and Joaquin Arambula have graciously co-sponsored this important legislation in addition to Assembly Members Tom Lackey and James Gallagher.

Gavin’s Law proposes a punishment of up to six years in prison and a specified fine if a hit-and-run crash leads to permanent or serious injury. It proposes a prison punishment of up to eight years and a fine if a hit-and-run crash ends in death.

The bill is co-authored by three Assembly members and two state senators.  An amended version of the bill is scheduled to be heard in January 2020.

Johnson Attorneys Group does not represent any of the parties mentioned above. Also, it is not our intent to represent any of the parties. If you would like to contribute to this story, please contact us.

James Johnson

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