You will be charged with a hit and run if you leave the scene of an accident without identifying yourself to the party or parties involved, and another’s property was damaged in the accident. The prosecution can file the charge either as a misdemeanor (property damage) and felony (injury sustained). Many will call me and inquire as to what their duties are if they are involved in an accident and damage someone’s property.
In California, Vehicle Code (“VC") Section 20002, imposes three duties: immediately stop, if the party/parties are not present, leave your identifying information (name, contact number and/or address), if the party/parties are on the scene, provide additional information (driver’s license, insurance information, registration). Keep in mind that you must comply with these obligations regardless of who is at fault. Even if the other driver is 100% at fault and you left the scene or failed to provide information, you could still be charged with hit and run.
If you hit a parked car or another type of property and the owner of that property is not on the scene, VC 2002 requires you to leave a note in a conspicuous place which must have your “identifying information," summary of what occurred and to immediately call your local police agency. Even though leaving a note is “technically" required, it is sometimes acceptable to simply call your local police agency advise them of the incident.
Although providing your insurance information is not required under VC 2002, this information and your vehicle’s VIN is required to be exchanged between drivers when both parties are present at the scene. In California, failure to provide insurance information is an infraction (VC Section 16025) and punishable by a maximum $250 fine.
How does a prosecutor prove a hit and run case? (1) you were involved (2) property or injury occurred and (3) that you had knowledge that property or injury was sustained. All three must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Generally, property damage will be charge as a misdemeanor and carry a maximum punishment of 1 year county jail and $1000 plus penalties and assessments.
A hit and run that causes death or serious bodily injury is a wobbler and could be charged as a felony which may result in imprisonment in state prison not exceeding four years or a fined maximum at $10,000 plus fees.
What are the defenses to hit and run? That the other party did not suffer any damages, you lacked knowledge or you were not involved in the accident. Depending on the facts and circumstances of the event, more mitigating factors could be discussed with the prosecutor. An effective criminal defense attorney should be available to you immediately.
I have had clients that came to me immediately after the incident and prior to the filing of a criminal case. What is critical to remember is that the police were not at the scene when the damage occurred so expect a knock at your door or a telephone call from a police officer who will want statements from you. As a prospective defendant, you want to remember you have a right to remain silent and a right to an attorney.
I have had clients that come to me after they allow the officer to question then and/or take pictures of the damages. There are other options such a civil compromise in this type of situation. But the truth of the matter is, for those clients that come to immediately after the incident, and prior to talking to the police, the prosecution has a much tougher time proving that my client was on the scene and that he/she had knowledge of the damage. I am the gatekeeper to these clients and as such, I very rarely, if at all, allow them to talk and affirm the belief of the police and the work of the prosecutor.
As I have written many times, it is not the duty of the accused to prove the case for the prosecution, it is the government’s job to insure all elements of the crime are present at the time of filing and that he/she can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury.