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Saturday, March 2, 2013 - 22:26
(TEXAS TRIBUNE - ALANA ROCHA) — People leave the scene of an accident most often because they lack insurance, a valid driver’s license or are drunk.
If someone dies as a result of that wreck, a bill in the Texas Senate would make the penalty for fleeing equal to that of intoxication manslaughter.
In just six of the more populated counties in the state, more than 40,000 hit and run accidents occurred in 2011 and 2012 combined, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
In the eyes of many in law enforcement, the penalty for failure to stop and render aid – a 3rd degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison – isn’t enough for drivers to do the right thing.
“My heart's broken. It's such a huge void," said Laurie Griffin who lost her daughter, Courtney Griffin, 30, in a hit and run accident in Austin in May of 2011.
On a short walk home from a friend’s place, a car struck and killed Courtney. Gabrielle Nestande was behind the wheel of that car.
Nestande told a jury last month she didn’t stick around to find out what cracked her windshield.
"I decided that when I saw my car, I figured this must have been a deer," said Nestande.
The former legislative aid admitted she had gone out that night to celebrate the end of the 82nd Legislature and drank as many as 5 beers.
Nestande testified that when something hit her car, she fled, scared, to her boyfriend’s apartment nearby.
"Who's responsibility is it that Courtney Griffin died? Mine," said Nestande on the stand.
Facing a handful of charges, including failure to stop and render aid, the jury found Nestande guilty of just one - criminally negligent homicide, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The first time convicted felon walked away with much less. Her sentence was suspended and Nestande was placed on community supervision.
“Now we're gonna really fight for the legislation that we've started so that no other family will have to go through what we've, we've gone through," said Laurie Griffin.
Senators Kirk Watson and Wendy Davis co-authored a bill that would make the charge of failure to stop and render aid a second degree felony when the wreck results in death – equal to that of intoxication manslaughter – and punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Watson has widespread support in the law enforcement community.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo’s department worked Courtney Griffin’s case and says the sentence the jury handed Gabrielle Nestande signaled more has to be done.
“The message that was sent to me was that we have a permissive attitude, and I don't think that plays well, and I don't think that's in the best interest of this community," said Acevedo.
Acevedo said APD worked 12 fatal hit and run accidents last year alone.
"I think that once people realize that if they do flee, regardless of what happened in the crash, there's going to be a huge, significant penalty for them that people will stay behind and will save lives," Acevedo said.
Both Acevedo and Watson have met with Griffin’s parents about the legislation they said they are working to pass in her memory.
The Texas Police Chiefs Association lists stiffening the penalty for failure to stop and render aid among its legislative priorities for this session.
A committee hearing on the bill is not yet scheduled.