Gov. Scott signs hit-and-run law

07/16/2014 7:26 PM

07/17/2014 8:07 AM

That’s just the way it is.

Those were Aaron Cohen’s last words.

Cohen, 37, was talking about his two little kids and his work schedule as he cycled with his friend Enda Walsh on the Rickenbacker Causeway in Key Biscayne just before 6 a.m. on Feb. 15, 2012.

At the same time, a man named Michele Traverso was driving home to Key Biscayne. He had been drinking the night before.

“You don’t see much of them in the evening because you work so late,” Walsh — not seeing Traverso barreling toward them — recalled telling Cohen about his kids Lily and Aiden, who were 3 and 1 at the time.

“That’s just the way it is,” Cohen replied.

Walsh remembers what happens next.

“Bang! We’re on the ground. He never woke up after that,” Walsh said. “In the seconds it took me to hit the ground and roll over, he was gone.”

And Traverso was gone as well. He kept driving, his windshield smashed. Hours later, he confessed to the hit-and-run accident. But police were unable to determine his blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash because he had left the scene and successfully hidden himself.

So Traverso ultimately spent less than a year in jail for leaving the scene of the accident. Nothing more.

That’s just the way it was. That was the law.

But no longer.

On Wednesday, under rainy skies near the scene of the crime that took Cohen’s life, Gov. Rick Scott held a ceremonial bill-signing to draw attention to the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, which increases penalties on drivers in fatal hit-and-run crashes.

The law, which took effect at the start of this month after Scott officially signed it June 24, imposes a four-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence for drivers convicted of leaving the scene of a crash that kills someone. It boosts the mandatory-minimum prison sentence from two years to four years for a DUI driver who leaves a fatal crash scene.

A person convicted of leaving a fatal crash scene would have his or her driver’s license revoked for three years.

The law also would increase the potential penalties for drivers who harm what are now called “vulnerable road users” — those riding bicycles, motorcycles, scooters or animals.

Scott said he was proud to sign the law, which passed the Florida Legislature unanimously and was sponsored in the state Senate by Miami Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. The powerhouse law firm Holland & Knight helped lobby for the bill without charge.

“You think about your own family,” Scott said when asked about the law. “If this happened to your own family, how would you feel — that somebody was a reckless driver and they killed your husband, your father, your son, your daughter?”

For Cohen’s wife, Patty Cohen, the law is a bittersweet tribute to her husband because, she said, she hopes the law will save lives.

“We’re extremely thankful that we’re able to change something that will hopefully change something in the future,” she said.

“It’s not only the tragedy of him being killed,” she said. “It’s the absolute horrible act of leaving the scene, which makes it even worse and disgusts us even more about the entire thing.”

While she spoke, 3 ½-year-old Aiden squirmed in her arms.

Asked about what his dad liked to do, Aiden said “he liked to give me things.”

But that was just the way it was before Traverso got behind the wheel after Valentine’s Day ended two years ago.

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