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For 20 angst-filled months, Kimberly France wondered if an arrest would ever be made in crash that killed her mother, Phyllis.
Investigators on the scene in April 2010 had little doubt that Todd Collins, 41, was driving the 2006 Toyota pickup that slammed into Phyllis France, 61, of Fort Myers, on U.S. 41 in eastern Collier County.
It wasn't until December 2011 that a warrant went out for Collins' arrest. Prosecutors say Collins, whose case remains pending after a not-guilty plea, was under the influence of a controlled substance when he crossed the center lane and hit France's minivan.
"An arrest doesn't mean that the person is being convicted, so I couldn't understand why just the arrest itself took so long," said Kimberly France, 42, of Maryland.
In Southwest Florida, there's no predicting how much time will lapse between a fatal traffic crash and criminal arrest. Some cases result in an arrest hours after the crash, while others take upward of a year.
A Daily News review of 20 Lee and Collier county Florida Highway Patrol cases involving charges of DUI or vehicular manslaughter since 2006 shows:
Seven defendants were arrested within one day of the crash.
Three were arrested after two to six weeks.
Five were arrested within two to six months.
Five were arrested six months or more after the crash.
"When we are investigating a crime, we of course want to resolve that as quick as possible, but we don't want to err with quality," said Lt. Gregory Bueno, a Fort Myers-based FHP spokesman. "If that means we have to delay an arrest to make sure we get all our stuff, we're going to do that. It would do us no good to rush to judgment."
In the end, drivers charged with DUI or vehicular manslaughter are typically adjudicated guilty. In those 20 cases, 11 ended with a plea agreement or guilty verdict, eight are pending and one resulted in dropped charges.
Still, the outcome percentages can be little comfort to victims' families, who sometimes wait months before learning of any arrests.
"Florida purports to be so tough on DUI, but they've had the opportunity to address this and haven't," France said. "In the interim, that person is free. They have no record that the public is aware of, so they have the freedom to go on and endanger other people's lives."
Bueno declined to say whether the France investigation took too long — "I don't know that there's some sort of line we cross, but 20 months, that's an exception," he said — but added several factors contribute to when an arrest is made.
Drivers arrested within hours of a crash typically are considered a flight risk, and an on-site arrest also is more likely if the accused driver fled the scene. Etem Alajbegu, charged with vehicular homicide in the October 2011 hit-and-run death of sign holder Stephen Duzick, was booked into jail within two hours of Duzick's death.
Often, investigators want blood test results back before putting handcuffs on a suspect, a process that typically takes a couple of months. James Rogan, accused of drunkenly slamming head-on into Evelyn Moffett's vehicle in October 2011, turned himself in on DUI manslaughter charges one week after investigators received toxicology reports showing he had a 0.238 blood alcohol content.
In some cases, investigators take more time to piece together a case even after getting toxicology reports. That could include DNA evidence that puts an accused driver behind the wheel, or further interviews with witnesses. FHP troopers spent eight more months investigating after getting results showing Andrea Kidder, accused of rear-ending and killing Bree Kelly in November 2009, was two and a half times over the legal limit.
"Every case has different components, different facts," Bueno said. "Some are more in-depth and complicated than others."
France said her mother's case required blood tests performed at a private laboratory, which added time and cost. Drug cases typically require at least two separate blood tests — one to gauge the presence of drugs, and a second to measure how much were in a driver's system.
In recent years, funding cuts have sometimes slowed arrest times, said Bob Brown, a 23-year FHP veteran who spent 11 years in traffic homicide before retiring in September 2011. Many investigators are overworked and carry "absurd" caseloads, Brown said.
"You start getting overwhelmed. You almost want to throw in the towel," Brown said. "It's gotten worse since I left. These guys are so stressed out from the overload of cases. … You get to a point where you start confusing cases and you have to recalibrate your brain. When you have one guy holding seven to 10 cases, that's kind of nuts."
Bueno said the local FHP office has seven investigators and one supervisor who handle traffic fatality cases for Lee, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Charlotte counties. In the past five years, FHP investigators have worked an average of 75 fatal crashes per year in Lee and Collier counties alone, FHP records show.
"Obviously staffing is an issue with any company or agency," Bueno said. "Our people work hard, there's no question about it. It's incumbent upon them to work efficiently and prioritize their cases."
Brown noted that delayed arrests can often rest on shoulders outside FHP. Assistant state attorneys sometimes take time to review cases and request more information. And the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which processes most blood samples, averages 50 days for producing toxicology reports.
In some trickier cases, particularly those involving suspected impairment caused by prescription pills, more thorough tests at private labs are requested.
Michael Hornung, a Fort Myers criminal defense lawyer who handles DUI-related cases, said defendants can benefit from longer time periods between crash and arrest.
"The longer this can drag out, the more people that we can get the ear of — law enforcement or the intake attorney making the ultimate decision to file charges — the better," Hornung said. "Should it take six to 20 months to make an arrest or determination of impairment? I don't think so. Should it take four to six weeks for lab results or establishing where that person was before the accident? That seems to be reasonable."
In cases with arrest delays, Brown said it's incumbent upon investigators to communicate with victims' families and assuage concerns about arrest dates.
"If you leave them out in the dark, all they're left with is confusion," Brown said. "Everybody watches TV and in 40 minutes, an entire case is resolved. That's not reality, and you've got to explain that to them."
Kimberly France said she called her traffic homicide investigator on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis. She also wrote 15 different government agencies and media organizations about the delay.
Today, she wants more answers about why Collins remained free, noting that he was twice cited in Lee County for driving on a suspended license between the crash and his arrest. Charges were dropped in both suspended license cases.
"I can understand a couple of months, six to eight weeks," France said. "But again, we're talking a year and a half. She was killed on the scene, and there's no doubt in my mind (Collins) was the only person in his car, so to me there shouldn't have been an issue."