Walkable West Palm Beach

Palm Beach Post story: Hit and run crashes soar in Palm Beach County

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It’s almost unfathomable. In the state of Florida, there are over 75,000 hit and run crashes yearly. And these crimes have nearly doubled since 2011 in Palm Beach County.

This excellent Palm Beach Post article tells the story of one such crime and its effects on the victim. Luckily, he lived to tell the tale, but many are not so fortunate.

Video interview with the crash victim: http://launch.newsinc.com/?type=VideoPlayer/Single&widgetId=1&trackingGroup=69016&siteSection=palmbeachpost_nws_loc_sty_pp&videoId=28419611

Thank you to Jorge Milan of the Palm Beach Post for covering this important story and highlighting the enhanced hit and run penalties that are in effect as of 2015. Media needs to continue to highlight these penalties anytime a hit and run story is covered.

A summary of the Aaron Cohen Law can be found here: http://www.aaroncohenlaw.org/a-summary-of-the-aaron-cohen-life-protection-act1

For a realtime account of the carnage pedestrians and bicyclists face on Florida roadways, be sure to follow @FLMassacre on Twitter.

Story below.

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Joseph LaRocca isn’t seeking eye-for-an-eye justice for the driver who fled the scene after slamming into his bicycle in Boynton Beach, leaving the 65-year-old man with a mangled left leg.

A little empathy would suffice.

LaRocca is part of an epidemic of hit-and-run crashes in Palm Beach County, the state and nation. In 2013, there were 6,128 crashes in Palm Beach County involving property damage, injuries or death in which the driver took off, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.That was nearly double the total of 3,381 hit-and-run crashes that took place in 2011.

While LaRocca didn’t suffer any serious injuries — a dislocated left knee cap that may require surgery — his case stands out for the sheer callousness of the offending driver.

LaRocca, who owns an orthopedic shoe store in Boynton Beach, said he was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk Jan. 10 when he was struck by a car near the Savannah Lakes Apartments on Gateway Boulevard.

As he lay on the sidewalk with his left leg gruesomely bent in a 90-degree angle and wondering if he would ever walk again, LaRocca heard the man get out of his car.

“I thought he was coming to help me,” LaRocca said.

But the man had no such intentions. Instead, the driver got out of his vehicle cursing, picked up LaRocca’s bicycle and hurled it to the side before jumping back into his car and making a quick getaway.

Boynton Beach traffic homicide investigators have identified a “person of interest” in the case but declined to provide further information because the investigation is ongoing, a police spokeswoman said.

“It was like I was a piece of garbage that was in the way,” LaRocca said. “I’d like for him to be held accountable. It would be very nice if he could take some courses in compassion. It’s like, really? How does somebody do that?’”

A deadly stretch in the county

The past three months have been particularly deadly in Palm Beach County thanks to hit-and-run drivers:

– Arnold Metellus, a 59-year-old Road Ranger, was killed Oct. 26 while standing next to the driver’s side door of a disabled vehicle on the east shoulder of northbound Interstate 95 south of Palmetto Park Road.

– Khiar Raymond, a 15-year-old student, was struck and killed while he and other teenagers walked back from a Boynton Beach High School basketball game on Dec. 2o.

– Jeffrey Collake, a 47-year-old homeless man, died New Year’s Day after he was hit by a vehicle while standing on the center median on Okeechobee Boulevard near the entrance to Florida’s Turnpike.

– Johnny H. Sanchez was killed Jan. 3 after a vehicle drove over him while Sanchez lay on Lake Worth Road.

The four deaths in three months are more than the total for 2013 when three people were killed by hit-and-run drivers within the county borders.

Karl Seifel has worked for the West Palm Beach Police Department for 29-plus years, including nearly 20 years as a traffic homicide investigator. Much has changed in that time but not the excuses people give for leaving the scenes of crashes.

“I’ve heard it all,” Seifel said. “Most of the time, it’s because they have a suspended license or they have an arrest warrant out for them or they don’t have a driver’s license or because they were drinking and driving. People panic.”

Often stupidly.

Seifel mentions a recent case in which a driver with a suspended license fled a crash caused by another driver, who was injured.

“Instead of just getting a ticket for driving with a suspended license, he’s now being charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving injuries,” Seifel said. “He can possibly get up to five years in prison for that.”

Stiffer penalties this year

Seifel said his main objective when investigating a hit-and-run crash is to find witnesses who can put the fleeing driver behind the wheel. But even when caught red-handed, some individuals who run from crashes will deny involvement no matter the evidence.

Take Anthony Halpin of West Palm Beach. Halpin is alleged to have been involved in two separate hit-and-run crashes on May 21. Witnesses saw the crashes and followed Halpin to his home. When a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy arrived, he found a pickup truck parked in the driveway with heavy front end damage and another’s vehicle rear bumper attached to the pickup’s front bumper. The deputy also was in possession of a head light found at one of the crash scenes that fit perfectly into a vacant space on the pickup’s left side.

Halpin denied being on the road at the time of the crashes and said he wasn’t aware of any damage to his pickup truck even though he is the only driver, according to an arrest report. When the deputy asked why he had found the pickup’s head light at the crash location, Halpin turned speechless. He then advised that deputy “that he will pay for the damages.”

“I asked him what damages and he wouldn’t answer me,” the deputy wrote in the report.

Halpin was arrested and faces charges of hit and run involving property damage and hit and run involving serious injury.

If either of Halpin’s crashes had resulted in a death, he would be looking at a mandatory minimum of four years in prison thanks to legislation — known as the Aaron Cohen law — passed last year in Tallahassee. The law also establishes that anyone convicted of leaving the scene of a crash involving injuries can have their driver’s license revoked for three years.

Law enforcement authorities said the law hasn’t impacted rising hit-and-run rates because most people are not aware of the beefed-up penalties.

“We can have all the laws that we want, but the word has to get around to make it effective,” said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Delray Beach, a longtime traffic safety advocate.

The driver who struck LaRocca, the Boynton Beach bicyclist, could also face enhanced charges under the Aaron Cohen law’s “Vulnerable Road User” provision, which pertains to hit-and-run victims riding bicycles, motorcycles, scooters or animals.

“I could understand if he was in a hurry, goosed the corner and hit me by accident,” LaRocca said. “But to throw my bike out of the way, curse and then take off is despicable. I’d like him to get an attack of conscious, come forward and admit he panicked.”

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