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HOPKINTON - Friends at a camping party thought Matthew Carter had fallen asleep in a camper. They didn't know he had tried to walk home Sunday night, until a couple who attended the party found Carter lying along the Jones-Delaware Road a little before 6:30 a.m. Sunday.

He had apparently been hit by a vehicle, whose driver then left the scene. He was dead.

Under a new Iowa law that went into effect July 1, that driver, and anybody who leaves the scene of an accident causing serious injury or death, could face felony charges and up to five years in prison.

Before, Iowa was one of six states where it is not a felony to flee the scene of a crash after killing someone. People accused of leaving the scene of a deadly accident were charged with an aggravated misdemeanor and faced up to two years in prison. But because there are no mandatory minimum sentences in Iowa law, they may only serve probation.

Now, only four states do not make leaving the scene of a deadly crash a felony.

That matters little to Monica Bales, Carter's mom.

"I'm still in shock," Bales, of Hopkinton, said. "At this point we're just looking for the person who did this."

The Delaware County Sheriff's Department doesn't know who hit Carter, and is asking for the public's help. They don't know if Carter was intoxicated at the time, and are awaiting toxicology results. An autopsy was scheduled Monday in Des Moines.

While parents, family and friends of victims of those who have died from hit-and-run accidents in Iowa say they are pleased by the upgraded penalties, others say loopholes remain.

Prosecutors say the penalties may be stricter, but the difficulties that lie in prosecuting such cases are no easier.

"The worst part about the law is we have to prove that the defendant knew or should have known that they hit someone; that they caused significant injury and were responsible for rendering aid," said Assistant Black Hawk County Attorney Charity McDonell. "And the new law doesn't change that requirement."

This can be difficult in cases where the hit-and-run occurred late at night or in the early morning - the time when most fatal hit-and-run accidents occur - when it's difficult to see pedestrians walking along the shoulder of a road.

Or, in McDonell's experience, when the individual is intoxicated and was not aware of what had happened.

Kyle Zey was hit and killed shortly after 1 a.m. June 30, 2005, by Jeremy Sawyer, who is serving a 25 year prison term for the death.

Sawyer, who was drunk, was going home after drinking with friends at a Cedar Falls tavern when he the crossed the median of Iowa Highway 58 in Cedar Falls and struck Zey, who was riding a motorcycle.

Sawyer drove away from the scene before police arrived. When police found him hours later, they calculated Sawyer's blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident was between .18 and .21 - roughly twice the legal limit of .08.

"He believed he had just gone up and over the curb, and the only damage done was to the undercarriage of the car," McDonell said. "We couldn't prove based on the evidence that he knew he hit Zey."

Sawyer pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, but a second count of leaving the scene of a fatal accident was dropped. Coupled, the two charges would have meant he would have served 17 1/2 years before becoming eligible for parole.

Vehicular homicide charges apply in cases when a driver unintentionally kills another, either while under the influence or by driving recklessly. Drivers found guilty of causing death while operating while intoxicated face up to 25 years in prison, with a mandatory provision the individual serve at least 70 percent of the term.

With the provision of the law unchanged, she said drunk drivers are provided an incentive to either get so intoxicated to the point they're not aware what is happening around them or to leave the scene to attempt to sober up.

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"They get a benefit. If you're drunk, you get a better deal if you kill somebody," McDonell said. "The way victims' families see it and feel about it is, why not drink more so you don't know what's going, so you can rely on that option?"

The problem, though, lies in being able to effectively address and prosecute such situations.

"But if you didn't know something, if you don't know you broke a law, how can you punish for that?" she said.

Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren, who dealt with a hit-and-run death in Tama in February 2004, said awareness on part of the driver should not matter.

"When you hit something, you know you hit something," Heeren said, adding defendant's typically know they've hit something but usually say they thought it was a deer or raccoon.

"The rule should be you stop and make sure the person is OK. If I think I hit a dog, I better be stopping to make sure it was a dog," Heeren said.

And while Iowa law enforcement officials and legislators have said increasing the new penalty might help reduce by serving as a deterrent, area county attorney's said Iowan's are largely unaware of the law.

"The vast majority of the public do not know what the punishments are for the crimes they commit," McDonell said, adding, "If they're going to leave, they're going to leave. If they have something to hide, they're not going to stick around. They're just thinking, 'Oh crap! I don't want to get in trouble.' It doesn't matter if they're facing an aggravated misdemeanor or a felony."

Contact Tom Barton at (319) 291-1570 or tom.barton@wcfcourier.com

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