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Alert system would target California drivers in hit-and-run crashes

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the same hit-and-run bill in September

Drivers who flee the scenes of crashes in California could see descriptions of their cars and license plates displayed on freeway signs under a proposed expansion of the Amber Alert system. 

For the second time in two years, state Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) has introduced a bill that would allow police to share details on hit-and-run drivers with the California Highway Patrol and display the information on freeway signs near the scenes of the crashes. 

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the same bill, saying he feared more additions could overwhelm the Amber Alert system.

Gatto said by 2016, when the law would take effect, California will have an "additional year of data" on whether the statewide alert system can accommodate more categories. It recently expanded to include information on missing people who are elderly and developmentally disabled.

"I would respectfully disagree with anyone who says we should wait to implement this," Gatto told The Times. "The reason why so many people flee after accidents is because there’s very little chance that they will actually be brought to justice."

The so-called Yellow Alert system would be activated only about 50 times a year in Los Angeles, Gatto said, in cases where someone was killed or severely injured. Police would also need a solid lead: a full license plate number; a partial license plate and the description the car; or the identity of the driver. 

Gatto's proposal follows a Los Angeles Times report that found hit-and-run collisions involving cyclists have surged by 42% over a decade in Los Angeles County, while the overall number of hit-and-runs has declined by 30%.  

Law enforcement agencies say that hit-and-runs are among the most difficult crimes to solve. There is little or no evidence at many crash scenes. Unless drivers are apprehended within two days, police say, there's little chance the cases will ever be closed.

The Los Angeles Police Department closed one in five hit-and-run cases from 2008 to 2012, meaning about 80% were unresolved, according to data the department reported last year to the Board of Police Commissioners. Less than half of those cases were closed through an arrest.

Gatto's legislation is modeled after a system in Denver, where police made arrests in 76% of cases when alerts were issued. 

"When you’re on the freeway, and someone speeds by you, you don’t know if someone is late for work or if they left the scene of the crime," Gatto said. "If we can put a sign on the artery where people flee the scene, and others see it, there will be a much greater chance of apprehension." 

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