“Aaron Cohen Act” Proves Safety Valves Are Consistent With Mandatory Minimums

Post Date: June 25, 2014

Governor Rick Scott signed the “Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act” into law yesterday. Among other changes, that bill establishes a four-year mandatory minimum for leaving the scene of an accident that results in death. Current law provides a four-year mandatory minimum for DUI manslaughter, but no similar penalty for leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death. Supporters of the change cited that “loophole,” arguing that the law provided an incentive for DUI drivers to leave the scene of accidents (and turn themselves in after any evidence of DUI was gone) rather than stay at the scene and provide help to an injured person.

Of course, we argued that the legislature could eliminate the same incentive by abolishing the four-year mandatory minimum for DUI manslaughter, but we didn’t win that argument. (We were successful in reducing the mandatory minimum to four years; it was ten in the originally filed bill.) I’m not yet convinced  this bill will actually have the impact its supporters think it will have – drivers who flee these accidents are not rationally weighing the likelihood of receiving one sentence or another, and the law’s harsh penalties themselves create an incentive to flee the scene of such accidents, and reduce the incentive to come forward after one has “gotten away.” Nevertheless, unlike most of Florida’s mandatory minimum laws, there is at least something to be said for eliminating institutional incentives that might generate dangerous behavior, and unlike our drug trafficking sentencing laws, at least there’s a victim for this one.

In any event, the bill, which takes effect July 1 of this year, passed unanimously in the House and Senate. As you might imagine, praise for the bill is in no short supply. Lawmakers, stakeholders and law enforcement are (nearly!) unanimous in their support for the new law. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, currently serving as president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said this of the bill:

The Florida Sheriffs Association supported SB 102; we do not want to encourage suspects to leave the scene of a crash because it’s penalty was greater than DUI Manslaughter. This law creates consistency among law violation penalties.

Judd’s sentiments were echoed by others, all of whom expressed (in one way or another) support for the fact that the bill increased penalties and created more consistency in sentencing. (You can read them all here.)

FAMM, of course, opposes adding any  new mandatory minimums to Florida’s laws. That said, I find tremendous encouragement for all of the legislative and law enforcement support for the Aaron Cohen Act, because that bill contains a safety valve! That’s right! After establishing the new four-year mandatory minimum for leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death, the Aaron Cohen Act provides:

The defendant may move to depart from the mandatory minimum term of imprisonment … unless the violation was committed while the defendant was driving under the influence. The state may object to this departure. The court may grant the motion only if it finds that a factor, consideration, or circumstance clearly demonstrates that imposing a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment would constitute or result in an injustice. The court shall state in open court the basis for granting the motion.

FAMM has long supported safety valves as a way to limit the worst injustices and inevitable negative unintended consequences of mandatory minimum laws. And the safety valve in the Aaron Cohen Act is a perfect example of how safety valves should work. The mandatory minimum stays on the books, but a judge still retains discretion to depart from the minimum in extraordinary circumstances.

To my eye, then, the real story of the Aaron Cohen Act is not that the legislature established a mandatory minimum – in Florida that’s as newsworthy as a summer storm. Rather, the interesting story is that a unanimous legislature, with strong support from law enforcement and prosecutors, added a safety valve to a mandatory minimum sentence. Perhaps even more importantly, all of those supporters – including the Florida Sheriffs Association – recognize that adding a safety valve to a mandatory minimum does not undermine the purpose or effectiveness of the mandatory minimum. After all, if, as Sheriff Judd argues, the Aaron Cohen Act “creates consistency” in the law, then by his reasoning a safety valve does not undermine consistency in sentencing. Or if, as Springfield Police Chief Philip Thorne, President of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, said, “this law will give our law enforcement officers additional tools to combat this serious issue,” then by Chief Thorne’s reasoning, a safety valve does not threaten those tools

I am extremely encouraged to see that the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Highway Patrol have enthusiastically endorsed a bill that includes a safety valve for a new mandatory minimum. It’s even more encouraging given the fact that the legislature passed HB 89, which also creates a safety valve to 10-20-Life, was also endorsed by the Florida Sheriffs Association and other law enforcement groups. 

There is more to do, of course. And now that the Florida Sheriffs Association is on record endorsing the idea that safety valves are consistent with the underlying purposes of mandatory minimums and not inconsistent with their (alleged) effectiveness, I look forward to working with them to implement other safety valves in Florida.  

Like this one!

~Greg Newburn, FAMM Florida Project Director

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