Bill could increase sentence for hit-and-run convictions

Hit-and-run drivers convicted of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence could face up to five more years behind bars if a bill proposed by Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) makes it through the Legislature.

Assembly Bill 956, which was introduced Feb. 22, would fix what Mansoor spokesman Saulo Londono called a legal "loophole" that "almost encourages" drivers to flee. Mansoor's staff say it's harder to prove gross negligence after the fact.

"I understand that accidents can and will occur," Mansoor said in a statement, "but I also believe in giving judges additional tools for sentencing those who run from the responsibility of remaining at the scene of the crime."

Currently, drivers convicted of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence — meaning that person acted in a way that showed egregious disregard for the safety of others — could see up to six years in prison, according to an Orange County district attorney's office spokeswoman.

Vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence, on the other hand, is a misdemeanor that could result in a maximum sentence of a year in jail, Farrah Emami wrote in an email.

Then, on top of that, if a driver is found to have fled the scene, an extra five years could be added to his or her sentence.

But if passed, the bill would amend the state vehicle code to essentially erase the sentencing distinction between manslaughter with and without gross negligence in the case of a hit-and-run.

That would mean that drivers convicted of vehicular manslaughter — with or without gross negligence — could face a maximum of 11 years behind bars.

Those maximum sentences increase in cases where the driver was intoxicated or in other special circumstances.

Londono said constituents mourning the loss of Irvine resident and Newport Beach doctor Catherine Campion Ritz, who was killed in a Newport Beach hit-and-run in September, approached Mansoor and "highlighted [an] issue pertinent to the whole state."

Michael Jason Lopez, 39, of Anaheim, pleaded not guilty to one misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence and one felony hit-and-run count in October. He's due back in court Friday.

Twitter: @jillcowan

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