FORT MYERS, Fla — When it comes to hit-and-run charges, Michael Chionopoulos, says it comes down to what type of hit-and-run it is, meaning if the car struck a person or property.
Michael Chionopoulos is an attorney at Absolute Law in Fort Myers.
"This first thing we look at when there's been a hit and run accident is what damage was caused by the accident," said Chionopoulos.
"if there is property damage, then it a misdemeanor. If there is injury, then it's a felony to leave the accident."
While a misdemeanor can result in a sentence of up to a year in jail, Chionopoulos says hit-and-runs resulting in injuries can have much higher penalties.
"if you hit them and leave the scene, you're looking at a felony for leaving, then you look at whatever charges result from your accident," said Chionopoulos.
A hit and run with injuries is charged as a low degree felony, with up to 5 years in prison.
Chionopoulos says a hit-and-run where someone dies is a 2nd-degree felony, resulting in manslaughter charges.
"If you stay at the scene, you're only looking at whatever charges result from your accident," said Chionopoulos.
A minimum of four years in prison is required by law for fatal hit-and-runs, even if there is a plea deal.
"Like in Hetherington, the most recent case we saw, he was sentenced two years in prison, two years on probation, and then two years of ankle monitoring. So the two years in prison and the two years on probation count as his four-year sentence," said Chionopoulos.
Chionopouls says peal deals help serve justice and also alleviate the justice system.
"It also unburdens the system, we only have a number of judges, a number of docket time," said Chionopoulos.
However, someone's prior criminal history would affect how their case is handled by prosecutors.
"That's going to be weighed in or factored in heavily to the recommendation that the prosecutor makes for a plea agreement," said Chionopoulos.
A high number of uninsured Florida drivers, Chionopoulos says, could be to blame for the number of hit-and-runs.
Drivers who leave the scene of a crash and then come back are still considered hit-and-run drivers, but their decision to return could help their case.
"When somebody comes back, there might be some room to say, don't charge that person with it because although they panicked and fled, as soon as they got away, they realized they had to take responsibility," said Chionopoulos.
“You’re better off just to stay and deal with what’s happened because eventually, you’re going to have to come back and deal with it, only you’re going to have the additional charge of fleeing.”