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Justices say knowledge key in hit-and-run cases

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously ruled that motorists must have "actual knowledge" of crashes to be found guilty in hit-and-run cases.

The ruling stemmed from a Palm Beach County case in which motorist Zachariah Dorsett hit a teen who fell in the road while riding a skateboard.

Dorsett, who was driving a heavy pickup truck, was stopped by police about three miles from the accident and was later charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving an injury. Dorsett said he didn't know he hit the teen, arguing that his windows were rolled up, his air conditioner and windshield wipers were on and that a radio was playing at full volume, according to the Supreme Court opinion.

A circuit-court jury found Dorsett guilty, and he was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison. But the 4th District Court of Appeal reversed the conviction, after Dorsett's attorney argued that jurors should have been instructed that state law requires "actual knowledge of the accident."

The Supreme Court, in a 13-page opinion written by Justice Charles Canady, agreed with the appeals court.

"Although (the section of state law) does not expressly state that actual knowledge is required for a violation, the law does expressly provide that a felony criminal violation requires that the driver 'willfully' violate the statute,'' the opinion said. "For the reasons we explain, we conclude that a willful violation can be established only if the driver had actual knowledge that a crash occurred."