Key Biscayne driver who sparked hit-and-run law sent to prison

Michele Traverso
Michele Traverso Miami Herald File/CBS4

After killing a cyclist in a hit-and-run car crash on the Rickenbacker Causeway in 2012, Michele Traverso caught a break: minimum jail time and house arrest inside his Key Biscayne condo.

Consider it a squandered second chance.

An irate Miami-Dade judge on Monday sent Traverso to prison for 28 more months after his probation officer caught him outside of his condo. His excuse: a walk on the beach with his girlfriend.

“At some point he has to take responsibility,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas said during Monday’s hearing. “It shocks the conscience of the court that he would even present himself before me again. He’s had every opportunity to become a law-abiding citizen.”

The surprise twist caps a closely watched case that led Florida lawmakers to pass stiffer sentences for the crime of leaving the scene of an accident. Traverso, 28, in a jail jumpsuit in the defendant’s box, looked stunned at the decision. He buried his face in his palms.

“He was very disappointed, and disappointed in himself,” said his lawyer, Ramon de la Cabada. “This is what has to happen.”

De la Cabada called the sentence “a little bit excessive.” In all, the judge meted out 48 months — though Traverso has already served 20 months behind bars since his initial arrest.

The widow of cyclist Aaron Cohen said it was a fair sentence that sent a “strong message” about the consequences of hit-and-run crashes.

“You’d think it would be pretty simple to just stay at home when you’re supposed to be at home,” Patty Cohen told reporters after the hearing. “You’re a grown man who has been through all of this and gotten so many breaks from the system. How could you violate that? I was appalled.”

Traverso hit and killed Cohen on the Rickenbacker Causeway in February 2012, a crash that prompted calls for safety from Miami’s avid cycling community. Although investigators suspected he had been drinking, they could not prove that he was impaired because he drove off, turning himself in the next day.

In January 2013, Traverso pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving a fatality. He faced a maximum sentence of 30 years behind bars.

His lawyer had argued that Traverso suffered from a potentially fatal immunological disorder and needed to be out of jail for treatment. Judge Thomas sentenced Traverso to just over the minimum mandatory sentence of 22.6 months behind bars.

Cohen’s relatives and supporters roundly criticized the sentence as too lenient. The case had another ripple effect: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, used the sentence as one reason to block the judge’s nomination to the federal bench. Despite widespread support among local leaders and the South Florida legal community, the White House ultimately gave up its nomination of Thomas.

In Tallahassee, cyclists started a movement to increase the penalty for leaving the scene of an accident. The campaign worked. The Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, signed into law last year, imposes a mandatory-minimum prison sentence of four years for drivers convicted of leaving the scene of a crash that kills someone. It also boosted the mandatory-minimum prison sentence from two years to four years for a DUI driver who leaves a fatal crash scene.

The change in the law wouldn’t have affected Traverso’s sentence. He would have remained on house arrest, allowed to leave his condo only to attend school and work, for two years.

But on Dec. 6, a probation officer paid a surprise early-morning visit to Traverso’s oceanside Key Biscayne condo and found him “attempting to run back into the apartment complex” after his supposed jaunt to the beach.

“While he has the luxury to have the beach as his backyard, he was not supposed to be out there,” prosecutor Denise Georges told the judge.

She suggested Traverso had made a habit of leaving the home for other reasons. On his Facebook page, he’d recently “shared” an Internet meme of a tequila shot with text “apologizing” to his liver. And back in March, he used Facebook to “check in” at the swank Nikki Beach nightclub on South Beach.

De la Cabada said Traverso was only at the beach that morning because his parents wouldn’t allow his girlfriend into the condo. And there was no proof he ever actually went to a nightclub.

“It’s moronic but it’s not a violation,” de la Cabada said of the Facebook post.

The judge was not swayed.

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