9 Investigates why Florida hit-and-run laws favor those who run

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. —

It has been almost six months since Tina Exposito laid her daughter to rest, her son remains in the hospital. 

On Tuesday, May 13, the Florida Department of Transportation will erect a memorial to Tina’s daughter Melanie at the intersection of Dean Road and Colonial<Drive? Street?>;, the intersection closest to where the young girl’s life came to an end when a black Mercedes hit her and her brother.

The driver of the Mercedes has never been arrested.

“It has left our family broken forever,” said Exposito.

The Florida Highway Patrol continues to investigate the crash that killed Exposito’s daughter and injured her son, however, investigators have not been able to determine who was driving the Mercedes when it hit the teens.

According to the accident report, just after 3 a.m. on December 6, the teens were on a bike crossing Colonial when the vehicle struck them in the center lane, outside a crosswalk.  Melanie and Travis were thrown from the bike, the driver of the car continued on, making no reported attempt to contact emergency services. 

It’s unknown how long the teens remained in the roadway until a passing FHP trooper spotted them and called for help. 

At 3:36 a.m. Melanie was pronounced dead. 

Hours later, the vehicle troopers say was involved in the crash was surrendered to FHP. However, the owner of the car would not reveal who was behind the wheel at the time of the accident.  While FHP said it is still investigating the crash, no charges have been filed since troopers say they cannot place any one specific person behind the wheel at the time.

“No matter who is driving it, the owner of the vehicle is going to be held accountable,” said attorney Bryan Crews.

Crews  is representing Exposito in a wrongful death lawsuit against Kila Holland and her mother Nikki Holland, the owners of the car.

“The civil case is taking the forefront because the criminal case is lagging,” said Crews.  “It’s our sincere hope that they will eventually bring charges against the person who did this.”

Presently, Florida law provides lesser penalties for drivers who flee the scene. In some cases drivers who were later convicted of killing a pedestrian or cyclist after fleeing the scene received only months in jail, versus the years in jail that drivers face if they are drunk at the time of an accident and remain on the scene. 
 
“It’s better to hit and run than hit and stay,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.  “They’re taking the gamble, if I can get away from the scene and sober up then I’ll deal with the other consequences later, if they catch me.”

As the head of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, Judd pushed the state to rewrite the law and increase the penalty for drivers who flee the scene.  Under SB 102 drivers who flee the scene involving a death would now face a “four year minimum sentence and the mandatory minimum sentence for leaving the scene with a death while DUI would increase from two to four years, the same as for DUI manslaughter”.

The bill, which passed the Florida Legislature, is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott who has yet to say if he’ll sign it.

“Gov. Scott is supportive of efforts to help keep Floridians safe and prevent hit and run accidents in our state,” said spokesperson John Tupps of the Governor’s Office.  “He will review this final legislation when it reaches his desk.”
 
But, even under the proposed changes to the law, it is still almost impossible for law enforcement to prove intoxication in hit and run accidents if the driver is able to go home and sober up before an arrest is made.
 
“You can’t prove they were intoxicated at the time if they get away,” said Judd.
 
According to MetroPlan Orlando, the three-county area of Orange, Osceola, and Seminole experiences a fatal hit-and-run accident every 21 days, with Orange County leading the group with 56 fatalities since 2010.
 
“You know what you did, and how can you live every day as a normal life knowing that you hit two kids, and you did absolutely nothing,” said Exposito, who is still waiting for her civil suit to be heard in court.
 
In the meantime, the Exposito family will be joining FHP in placing four billboards across the area offering a reward for information leading to an arrest in the accident that killed Melanie and injured Travis.