WHAT IS HIT AND RUN IN CALIFORNIA?
The California Vehicle Code covers a driver's responsibility in case of an accident under Section 20001 and Section 20002. A driver's responsibilities following an accident that caused injury to someone other than himself or herself is covered by Section 20001, while accidents that did not result in injury to another person are covered by Section 20002.
THE DUTIES OF EVERY DRIVER
If a driver is involved in an accident in California, there are several important things the driver must do:
- Stop the car immediately
- Render reasonable assistance to any person injured
- Provide other people involved in the accident with:
- The driver's name and address
- The vehicle owner's information, if the vehicle belongs to someone else
- Upon request, the driver's license and registration
- If the owner of damaged property is not there, leave written notice of this information and a statement of the accident in a conspicuous place, and notify local police of the accident.
If a driver involved in a car accident fails to do these things, the driver could be found guilty of committing Hit & Run in California.
WHAT KIND OF ACCIDENT?
It does not matter what type of property is damaged in an accident. In many situations, the damaged property is another driver's car, but any damaged property will meet the legal requirement.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of property that could satisfy the damage requirement:
- Buildings, including sheds and garages
- Trees and plans
- Animals, including pets and livestock
- Lawn Art, including topiaries, fountains and garden gnomes
In short, “property” can mean practically anything.
WHAT IF THE ACCIDENT WASN'T MY FAULT?
Look at the duties of the driver outlined above. Notice that the law imposes these duties on every driver involved in an accident. The law does not impose different duties on those responsible for causing the accident.
Consider the following scenario:
Driving home after a long day at work, Reuben gets rear-ended by a blue pickup truck. Both Reuben and the blue truck safely pull over and Reuben gets out of his car to check for damage. Not seeing any major damage, Reuben gives the driver of the other driver a thumbs up and drives off – no harm, no foul.
Weeks later, Reuben gets a summons in the mail. The truck driver claims Reuben caused the accident by making an unsafe lane change, and the police found Reuben by tracing his license plate, captured by a nearby security camera.
Without a viable defense, Reuben could be found guilty of violating Vehicle Code Section 20002. If the driver of the blue truck turned out to be injured from the accident, Reuben could be found guilty of violating Vehicle Code Section 20001.
You may not be responsible for causing the accident, but you are still responsible for following the law.
Violating Vehicle Code 20002 is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or $1000 in fines.
Violations of Vehicle Code 20001 are considered more severe, as they involve more than just property damage. These cases can be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanor, a decision initially made by the prosecutor's office. Felony violations of Section 20001 can be punished by years in state prison and huge amounts of money in fines and fees. In either case, a court could also require the driver to pay restitution to the victims, or families of the deceased, further increasing the financial burden of conviction.
Alternatively, you could be put on a form of probation for up to three years. In addition to not violating any laws while on probation, you could be required to complete community service, pay fines and regularly check in with probation regarding restitution.
DEFENSES TO HIT & RUN
Being charged with Hit & Run in California does not automatically mean you are guilty of the crime. Criminal charges can make someone feel frightened and restless, especially if they are not guilty of a crime! A diligent attorney can investigate your case and consider the details more thoroughly than the police's own investigators. The following are possible reasons why someone would not be guilty of Hit and Run.
Unaware an Accident Occurred
This defense depends on the facts of each particular accident, primarily focused on the type of damage or injury. After all, it would be difficult to believe someone knocked over a fire hydrant without noticing.
Recognize that this defense does not permit someone to intentionally avoid learning about an accident or injury, like failing to stop after a collision.
A driver cannot be guilty of hit and run if there was no injury or property damage. Therefore, a near-miss collision does not meet the “hit” requirement of Hit and Run. Further, there must be some actual damage. Merely touching property without causing any damage is insufficient to support a conviction. Whether or not there is damage may be in dispute, so remember that first opinions are not always final opinions.
Only You Were Injured
In certain circumstances, a driver can be permitted to leave the scene of an accident if no one else is injured.
Imagine a motorcycle and SUV collide at an intersection. Both the motorcycle and SUV are damaged. After checking that no one else was injured, the motorcyclist goes to the hospital for treatment. As a matter of public policy, the law acknowledges the importance of medical treatment for the injured and allows a driver to prioritize his or her own medical health when no one else was physically injured.
Only Your Property Was Damaged
You do not have to exchange your personal information if you own the only property damaged. This rule addresses situations where it is unreasonable to penalize the only victim of an accident.
As a policy choice, this makes sense. Imagine driving down the street when a deer darts in front of your car. You swerve to avoid the deer and scrape your car against a stone wall. Your car is damaged, but the wall is unblemished. You are allowed to continue driving without leaving a note on the wall.
Someone Else Was Driving
A vehicle owner is not guilty of hit and run if someone else was driving at the time of the accident. As noted above, sometimes prosecutions are initiated based on license plate numbers. However, the owner of a stolen or borrowed vehicle cannot be guilty of hit and run by some other driver.
Contact the Law Office of Peter James Chambers immediately for a free evaluation of your case.