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Bill Eases Up On Drivers With Suspended LicensesSouth Florida Sun-Sentinel
This week, five days after a car driven by an unlicensed driver struck and killed a little girl in Sunrise, lawmakers advanced a bill that would sharply reduce penalties for people who repeatedly drive without a license. It has almost unanimous support in the Senate and has a good chance of winning House approval, supporters and opponents said.
By contrast, a bill backed by Rep. Ari Porth, D- Coral Springs, and co-sponsor Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D- Lake Worth, that would stiffen penalties and impound cars of unlicensed drivers is almost certain to fail for the third straight year, Porth said. It has sat in committee for more than a month and legislators have not voted on the bill.
"With the number of deaths and injuries inflicted by those who drive with a suspended license, it's unfortunate the Legislature would try to treat that offense less seriously rather than more seriously," Broward Assistant State Attorney Lee Cohen said Friday.
The differing prospects for the two bills come down to money, according to legislators and officials budget analyses.
The Senate bill reduces the penalty on offenders convicted more than twice from a felony to a misdemeanor. The maximum jail sentence would be 60 days, down from the current maximum of five years in state prison. Drivers previously convicted of a violent felony would still face the tougher guidelines now in place.
That bill in large part aims to free up prison beds. About 1,660 people are in state prison for repeatedly driving with suspended or revoked licenses, with average sentences of about 2.3 years, according to state figures. The cost of housing them is $20 million annually.
The bill's sponsors, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D- Tampa, could not be reached for comment this week. But supporters, including defense attorneys, argue it is improper to criminalize people who need to drive and lost their license only because they didn't pay fines and penalties from previous infractions.
More than 1.8 million Floridians currently have their driving privileges suspended or revoked, according to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. A 2003 study by the American Automobile Association found that motorists without a valid driver's license are five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than those properly licensed.
Two weeks ago, a judge sentenced Adam Gaillard of Palm Beach Shores to five years in prison for driving without a license and leaving the scene of an accident after striking two women walking on the Blue Heron Bridge. Gaillard claimed he left the scene because his license was suspended.
On April 4, a car allegedly driven by an unlicensed driver struck and killed 4-year-old Veronica Ford of Sunrise. The driver fled the scene.
Police have charged Charles Sanford with leaving the scene of an accident that causes death. It's the third time Sanford, 18, has been charged with driving without a license.
The House sent the bill back to the Senate on Thursday without taking action, but will take up the measure again next week. The Senate bill, which passed 35-1 on its third reading, does allow stiffer sentences for unlicensed drivers previously convicted of violent felonies.
That provision would not have helped Broward Sheriff's Deputy Maury Hernandez, who was shot and almost died last year during a traffic stop. The accused shooter, David I. Maldonado, has had his license suspended 14 times in the past seven years and been arrested on that charge at least five times.
Maldonado never spent a day in jail, and had only once been sentenced to probation. He had never been convicted of a felony that would make him eligible for prison under the new bill.
"I'm so tired of hearing about people's lives being taken by irresponsible, unlicensed drivers," Porth said Friday.
Porth's bill calls for police to immediately impound or immobilize the vehicles of anyone caught driving on a suspended license. The person would have to pay all outstanding fines and penalties and get their license reinstated before regaining control of the car.
Implementing tracking systems and other costs to support provisions of the bill run several hundred thousand dollars, although the state could later recoup millions of dollars in fines and penalties, he said.
"Just like everything in the Legislature this year, it comes down to money," Porth said. "And more people are going to be killed this year because we didn't act."
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