MARTIN COUNTY — Sheriff’s investigators have solved about one-third of their unsolved hit-and-run cases so far in 2022, many of them after dedicating a unit in September to closing the cases.
Deputy Erick Day tracks the numbers and says he’s seen success with the initiative.
“I think any case that has the potential to be solved, and is solved is a success story,” Day said. “Especially when sometimes you’re dealing with staffing issues and those cases may or may not have gotten the attention in a way that they needed to.”
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Chief Deputy John Budensiek said the hit-and-run crashes are primarily minor crashes that haven’t resulted in fatalities.
Without injuries, death and heavy damage, the minor nature of these crashes may be glossed over, Budensiek said.
So, he said, investigators are focusing on two-car collisions where one driver leaves the scene.
Day said the area between Cove Road and Southeast Indian Street is a hotspot for such crashes.
He said investigators arrested some of the drivers involved in the solved cases, but most were cited and received a summons to show up in court.
Hit-and-run crashes increasing
With a little over a month left in 2022, the year’s hit-and-run numbers have surpassed the 314 tallied in 2021.
As of November, drivers who crashed into another vehicle fled at least 320 times in Martin County before law enforcement arrived, sheriff’s investigators said.
Day said 228 of those crashes still are unsolved.
The number of unsolved cases this year concerned sheriff’s officials and prompted the creation of the hit-and-run initiative.
Day said he started tracking the numbers of hit-and-run cases in April after seeing a rise compared to 2021.
“Our entire unit was kind of provoked in April, early April, to come up with ways to try to reduce these numbers of hit-and-runs,” Day said. “It was brought to light on how egregious the number was becoming and even more concerning was the number that were going unsolved.”
Budensiek said Day is part of a traffic investigations squad of 19 people.
“The problem with these hit-and-run crashes is they tended to be so minor, that they don’t just jump out at you,” Budensiek said. “… But these minor events … while there’s not a lot of damage to the car, it’s a huge fiscal impact to the people involved.”
Under this new initiative, Day is taking on a case load more tailored to hit-and-run investigations and tallying up data on cases investigators still need to resolve.
Some of the cases require “a deeper dig,” Day said.
The deputy said he investigated one case as a hit-and-run in which the passenger in a vehicle that crashed into Sheriff’s Maj. John Cummings’ car turned out to be the driver.
“Essentially, the short end of the story is that we arrive on scene and the driver was in the passenger seat and he was claiming the driver fled on foot,” Day said. “So, we had received it as a hit-and-run and we began investigating that and were able to obtain some evidence that ultimately led us to identify that the passenger was actually the driver …. “
Day said there’s rarely a day he works that he doesn’t hear of a hit-and-run.
He said the effort to solve the cases has to continue or the numbers will keep going up.
Already, hit-and-run crashes are nearing levels seen pre-pandemic: There were 365 in 2018. There were 357 in 2019 and 291 in 2020. In 2021, the number climbed to 314.
The chief deputy said he believes the rise is tied to a sudden large number of drivers returning to the road after COVID-19 stay-at-home orders ended.
“We have a lot of pressure on the roads that we didn’t have before,” Budensiek said. “With that, you’re going to get minor crashes, you’re gonna get serious crashes, you’re gonna get these hit-and-run crashes.”
Video and witnesses needed
The two key pieces of evidence investigators need to resolve these crimes are video evidence and witness statements, Day said.
But deputies can still face difficulties as witnesses may not stay on scene and footage from surrounding cameras may be deleted after a certain timeframe.
The challenge is making sure to obtain all the evidence as soon as possible.
“Logistically, it’s more of a challenge than anything,” Day said. “… trying to obtain that evidence while it’s still available, getting camera footage and witnesses to give us good deions and that kind of thing while it’s still fresh in their mind after it happened, and not trying to allow too much time to lapse.”
As many crashes happen in broad daylight in front of the public eye, Day said witnesses staying behind to share minimal information can still be helpful.
“Even if they have some information, even a color of a vehicle or something sticking out of the bed of a pickup, any type of identifying information is a piece of the puzzle that could lead us to the capture of the suspect that ended up leaving the scene,” Day said.
Often, drivers not impaired by drugs or alcohol who leave the scene flee because they don’t have a valid driver’s license, Day said.
But failing to remain at the crash makes consequences even worse, the investigator said.
“The mindset must be that ‘if I’m not caught, then I won’t have to face the penalty of being unlicensed’,” Day said. “However, in forethought they’d be really much, much better off from a penalty standpoint, if they were just to have stayed on scene and dealt with what we have to deal with. Likely they’d be leaving there with a piece of paper in their hand instead of facing jail time.
Leaving the scene of a hit-and-run crash only causing property damage is a second-degree misdemeanor that can lead to penalties of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine under Floridspan lspanw.
And the crashes still take a toll even with no injuries or deaths, Budensiek said.
“They don’t involve totaled cars and serious bodily injury. But the crashes, even though they may be relatively minor in nature, they have a huge financial impact to the victims,” Budensiek said. “They get left holding the bag with insurance issues to deal with.”