For two weeks, James LaPlante has imagined the same scene, over and over, like a terrible movie he can’t forget.
His youngest son steps off a curb in the Marigny. A GMC Yukon barrels by, hits him and drives away, leaving 24-year-old Andy LaPlante to die like roadkill in the neutral ground.
“All I can think of is that he died all by himself. Nobody was there for him,” his father said. “I wonder a lot if he would have stopped, helped him, maybe there was something he could have done.”
Andy LaPlante’s death marked New Orleans’ fifth fatal hit-and-run in 2013, and would within 48 hours be followed by another that killed an off-duty New Orleans police officer.
It is a disturbingly common scenario in New Orleans: Over the last three years, some 18 percent of drivers involved in fatal accidents have fled the scene. That’s more than four times the national average.
That figure is met with astonishment by law enforcement officials and highway safety advocates outside New Orleans: In America as a whole, the rate of hit-and-run drivers involved in fatal crashes hovers around 4 percent.
But it is not surprising to New Orleans Police Lt. Anthony Micheu, who oversees the traffic department.
There is no single commonality in the 21 fatal hit-and-runs since 2011 that might explain why a higher percentage of drivers in New Orleans keep going, he said, not knowing if a person they hit lived or died.
He believes many stem from the Big Easy’s boozy nightlife scene, which leads to a high rate of drunken driving.
The New Orleans Police Department books between 1,200 and 1,500 people each year with driving under the influence, more than any other jurisdiction in the state, he said.
Alcohol is involved in an average of more than 30 percent of all fatal wrecks in the city.
Drunken drivers who kill people typically face stiffer penalties than those who flee accidents, creating a perverse reward for drunk drivers to keep going.
Drivers who aren’t drunk may flee for a variety of other similar reasons: arrest warrants, revoked licenses, a stolen car, a missing moral compass or plain panic.
“I don’t know how anyone in their right mind can leave someone dying on the side of the road,” Micheu said. “I’m not a psychiatrist. There’s no statistical data. But it seems like a lot of people subconsciously make an effort to believe that what they did is not that bad.”
Defense attorneys who represent those accused of hit-and-runs say the act is more impulsive, a snap decision of self-preservation made in one of the scariest moments in a person’s life.
But Andrew LaPlante’s father, who lives in Mandeville, is less forgiving of the instinct that left his son, and 20 others in less than three years, to die on the streets of New Orleans. He believes it comes from the same place as the city’s intractable murder problem — a vast and utter indifference to human life.
“He took our son away and he didn’t even stop,” James LaPlante said. “It seems like life doesn’t really matter to some people over there. You hit somebody, all you think about is getting away with it. A normal, caring, rational human being doesn’t do that.”
Every year in the United States, between 3.5 and 4.5 percent of deadly accidents involve drivers who flee, according to figures from the Department of Transportation. The rate is slightly higher in Louisiana. In the last five years, it has ranged from 4.6 percent to 6.2 percent, according to numbers from the State Police.
New Orleans’ suburbs are in range of the rest of the state.
Of the 44 deadly crashes investigated by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office since 2009, only three — or 6.8 percent — have involved a driver who fled. In St. Tammany, just two of the 75 deadly crashes since 2010 — or 2.7 percent — were caused by hit-and-run drivers.
The Baton Rouge Police Department was unable to provide The Advocate with numbers of fatal hit-and-runs.
The rate in New Orleans has inched up over the last three years. In 2011, 17 percent of the 46 traffic fatalities involved a hit and run driver. Last year, the rate rose to 18 percent of the 38 deadly accidents.
So far this year, there have been 31 fatal accidents, which is alone a troubling figure for Lt. Micheu. It represents a 43 percent increase in traffic deaths over the same point last year. In six of those, or 19 percent, a driver fled the scene.
Each is investigated with the intensity of a homicide, Micheu said. But the legal implications are murky.
If a drunken driver causes a deadly accident in Louisiana, he is typically charged with vehicular homicide, which is punishable by a minimum of five years in prison and up to 30 years. But the crime requires that police and prosecutors prove the driver was drunk — which is often impossible if they flee the scene and aren’t found for days.
Authorities are left with an assortment of other charges to consider when for motorists who kill someone and flee, and the potential punishment for the common charges is far less than vehicular homicide carries.
The State Police, which investigates the vast majority of accidents in the state, usually books hit-and-run drivers with two crimes: negligent homicide and hit-and-run causing serious bodily injury or death, said Trooper Melissa Matey.
Negligent homicide, defined as the killing of a person by criminal negligence, has no minimum sentence and a maximum of five years. On top of that, a felony hit-and-run the causes a death is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Together, they equal a total of no more than 15 years, compared to 30 years allowed for vehicular homicides. There is no minimum sentence, whereas vehicular homicide has a minimum sentence of five years.
“This is a very serious issue,” said Jan Withers, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“It’s just heartbreaking. It’s distressing to see that the punishment if they leave the scene is less than it would be if they stayed behind.”
Withers said that her organization has not specifically studied the connection between drunken driving and hit and run. But it has advocated on a case-by-case basis for victims of drivers who flee.
The New Orleans Police Department, too, has tried to play hardball in recent hit and run cases. They booked the man who hit LaPlante, and another accused of crashing into Officer Rodney Thomas the following day, with manslaughter.
That charge is typically reserved for homicides “committed in sudden passion or heat of blood.” But it is also applicable for killings committed during another crime. The police department alleges that 29-year-old Michael Anthony Brown was engaged in the crime of hit-and-run driving when LaPlante was killed.
Defense attorneys and another critics of the charge call that a stretch of the law, and a bootstrapped attempt to get around the gap in the law for hit-and-run drivers. It is a booking tactic that police have used for high-profile crashes before.
In July 2011, a Metairie man allegedly hit a 3-year-old girl while speeding through a block party on his motorcycle. The child died, and the 22-year-old man turned himself in two days later. He was originally booked with manslaughter, felony hit-and run and reckless driving. But prosecutors later reduced the charges to a single count of hit-and-run causing serious injury or death. The case remains pending in Criminal District Court.
A year earlier, another man was also booked with manslaughter after he lost control of his car while illegally drag racing, slamming into the other car and killing the 43-year-old driver. He was prosecuted only on the drag-racing charge and pleaded guilty for a five-year suspended sentence.
And in a 2007 case, a New Orleans city employee was booked with manslaughter for fleeing after he hit and killed a 17-year-old girl riding a bike. Prosecutors again brought only the charges of obstruction of justice and hit-and-run. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years.
Andy LaPlante’s family buried him in a Mandeville cemetery on July 9, hours before the NOPD booked Brown in his death.
Five days earlier, LaPlante had been out with friends, celebrating a bachelor party. He got separated and was walking alone near the intersection of Music Street and St. Claude Avenue around 5 a.m. July 5.
Police reported that LaPlante walked into traffic as he tried to cross the street. A then-unknown vehicle barreled into him, and drove away as LaPlante succumbed to his injuries on scene.
“His body was soon discovered, lying in plain view on the median near Music Street and St. Claude,” the NOPD said in a statement.
For the next five days, LaPlante’s family focused on the manhunt for the driver. They went on television and begged for witnesses to come forward. It was a distraction, his father realizes now.
The NOPD arrested Michael Brown Jr. after an anonymous tipster reported seeing his GMC Yukon with damage to its hood and front lights, in an abandoned lot next to Brown’s house on Jourdan Avenue. Brown had allegedly removed the hood and hid it in the weeds near his house.
Brown allegedly told police that he thought he hit a dog on the road, circled the block, saw nothing out of the ordinary and drove himself home. He is being held at Orleans Parish Prison on a $60,000 bail, booked with manslaughter, obstruction of justice and hit-and-run driving.
And James LaPlante has no distraction left. He is left to ponder far more painful questions: was his son afraid, did he die quickly and what might provoke a person to drive away and leave him lying there.
“I really want to hate the guy, but I just don’t feel anything right now,” James LaPlante said. “I’m just empty.”
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