Senate bill aims to increase punishment for abandoning scene of hit-and-run

Klarissa Fitzpatrick

A bill filed in the Texas Senate will increase the penalty for leaving the scene of a hit-and-run that results in a fatality.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, will change the status of hit-and-run charges from a third degree felony to a second degree felony, increasing the maximum punishment from 10 years in prison to 20 years. 

“The goal of this bill is certainly to remove any incentive for individuals to leave the scene of an accident,” Watson said. “But it’s also to encourage more people to do the right thing, in a bad set of circumstances, and actually save a life.”

The bill was filed in response to constituent demands following a hit-and-run accident involving legislative aide Gabrielle Nestande, who was charged with criminally negligent homicide after hitting pedestrian Courtney Griffin and fleeing the scene. 

Nestande has not been formerly sentenced, but the jury recommended 10 years of probation. She was not convicted of the other charges levied against her, which included intoxication manslaughter and manslaughter and could have resulted in heavier sentencing.

Last year, Kylie Doniak, a UT soccer player, was seriously injured in a hit and run accident. The driver, Nicholas Colunga, was charged with intoxication assault and failure to stop and render aid, both of which are currently third-degree felonies. 

Although Doniak survived the accident, she sustained severe injuries that led to long-term physical therapy and withdrawal from the University. The proposed bill does not increase punishments for hit-and-run charges that do not result in a fatality, which the Doniak family considers an oversight. 

“The proposed bill should increase the penalty for all hit-and-run drivers, not just those whose actions result in a fatality,” the Doniak family said in an statement e-mailed by their attorney. “The penalty for the crime should not be less if the victim lives, but suffers life-long injuries.”

Both the Doniak family and Griffin’s mother, Laurie Griffin, are suing the bars where Colunga and Nestande had been the nights of the accidents. 

“Legislators should enact laws that require bar owners in Texas to carry liquor liability insurance to provide for the catastrophic damages caused by over-served patrons,” the Doniak family said in the statement,

Watson said he hopes this bill will encourage people to help.

“First responders often talk about the ‘golden hour’ of trauma care following a serious and potentially deadly accident,” Watson said. “My sincere belief is that with this bill, more people will remain at the scene of a potentially fatal accident to call 911 and get help to victims.”

Published on March 18, 2013 as "Proposed law would increase sentence for hit-and-run drivers".