A hit and run is the crime of failing to stop your vehicle after you are involved in an accident (whether you are responsible for the accident or not). Under the laws of California, you have several responsibilities toward motorists in case you are involved in an accident. Failure to exercise your role could result in your arrest and conviction for a felony or misdemeanor hit and run. In this article, the Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer discusses your responsibilities when you are involved in an accident, the potential penalties for a hit and run and the defenses you can use to fight such charges.

Misdemeanor Hit and Run VC 20002

California Vehicle Code 20002 prohibits motorists from leaving the scene of an accident without providing the relevant identification information to other motorists involved, or to a person whose property has suffered damaged from the accident. The law puts this requirement regardless of whether you were responsible for the accident, or whether property damage occurred.

According to the AAA Foundation, most hit and run accidents in California occur on interstate highways and county and municipal roads, meaning that the likelihood of hit and run accidents occurring is high. When you are involved in an accident, the laws of California require you to do the following:

  • Stop your car immediately or at the nearest area that is safe and does not block the flow of traffic
  • Provide identification information to other parties including other drivers or owners of the property that has suffered damage
  • In case the owner is not present, leave a note in a visible area on the car or property. The note should contain the contact information, address and a statement of what happened.
  • The name and address of the owner of the car in case you are not the owner
  • Report the accident to the police or the California Highway Patrol
  • Your drivers’ license information if requested by the other party
  • Provide your insurance details to other drivers on the scene to avoid violating VC 16025, which could result in a fine of $250.

When you are facing charges for a hit and run, the prosecution should prove that the following elements exist:

  • You were involved in a vehicle accident when driving
  • The accident resulted in damage to property
  • You knew that another person’s property was damaged or could have been damaged
  • You willfully left the scene without providing your identification details, whether or not you intended to break the law.

Most drivers commit a hit and run out of ignorance, lack of insurance, or lack of witnesses. Such mistakes can have severe consequences, such as increased insurance premiums, incarceration, and fines. If you are arrested for a DUI, then contact a criminal defense lawyer near you for advice and legal representation.

Felony Hit and Run VC 20001

It is a felony in California to flee the scene of an accident if a person is injured or killed. Your responsibilities in case an accident in which you are involved causes injury or death include:

  • Stop immediately or at a safe place near the scene
  • Provide identifying information including your name, address and contact information, your vehicle registration information including the details of the car owner, if you are driving someone else’s car
  • Provide reasonable assistance to injured persons by providing or arranging transport to the nearest emergency room
  • Provide your driver’s license information upon request by law enforcement
  • Contact the local police or CHP to report the accident

If you are a commercial driver and the passengers in your vehicle are injured, you are supposed to provide your details to them and arrange medical attention for them. Fleeing the car under such circumstances also amounts to a felony hit and run.

To avoid a hit and run prosecution, always stop in case of an accident to check whether anyone is injured and provide your details. The elements of a felony hit and run include:

  • You were involved in an accident
  • You knew or should have known that the accident occurred
  • You knew that someone else was injured or the nature of the accident is likely to cause injury or death
  • You willfully left without performing one or more of your duties to other motorists and passengers

Hit and Run Legal Defenses

Whenever you are facing criminal charges for a hit and run, talk to an experienced lawyer who has dealt with similar cases in the past. A lawyer is instrumental in the development of a strong defense for your case. Some of the tried and tested legal defenses an attorney can use in your defense include:

a. Lack of Knowledge

The court requires that the prosecution prove that you knew that the accident had happened, or there was a probability that property was damaged or a person was injured. The court will determine the likelihood of you feeling the impact of an accident, the extent of damage, and other circumstances surrounding the accident to decide whether you knew, or should have reasonably known that an accident occurred.

For example, if you are driving a sturdy SUV, the probability of feeling a minor impact such as flipping is low. Your lawyer will probably use this defense when the damage was minor and almost unnoticeable.

b. Only Your Car Suffered Damage

If only your car suffered damage during the accident, then you do not have any criminal liability for failing to stop. In most cases, you must have stopped to ensure that someone else's property was not damaged.

c. You Left the Scene Temporarily

When you are involved in an accident, you or another person might suffer injury. Often, the first thing you think about in such a situation is getting the necessary emergency help. If you leave the scene of the accident to look for help for yourself or another person (that is reasonable under the circumstances), then you do not have criminal liability.  

This defense is also applicable if you left the scene temporarily to find a safe place to park your car. The law requires you to park your car in a safe place that does not endanger other motorists or block the flow of traffic.

You can also use this defense if you left the scene, then came back after a while. In such a case, the lawyer can use the defense to request for reduced charges or dismissal of charges.

d. You Are the Only One Who Suffered Injury in the Accident

If you are the only person who suffered injury, then you cannot be charged with a hit and run. However, you also have to check around to ensure that the accident did not cause damage to someone else’s property.

e. You Were Not Involved In the Accident

Sometimes, you may be charged with a hit and run involving a vehicle that you own, but were not driving it at the time of the accident. If anyone else has access to your car, say an employee or your child, and he or she was involved in an accident, then you are not guilty of the hit and run.

In some cases, another person may have been in control of your vehicle after it was stolen. If you filed a stolen vehicle report, then your lawyer will use these records to prove that indeed you were not the one driving the car.

Your lawyer could also request the prosecution to present witnesses who saw you driving away from the scene of the accident. If no witnesses were present, then this effective defense will cast doubt upon the prosecution’s case.

f. You Did Not Leave the Scene Willfully

Sometimes, it may be impossible for you to remain at the scene of an accident as it threatens your safety. In that case, outside circumstances force you into committing a hit and run. The law cannot hold you criminally responsible for leaving the scene of an accident if you have a reasonable belief that more damage will occur. For instance, cases of hitting a pedestrian may raise anger in a mob who may attack you (and even kill you) if you remain at the scene of an accident. However, your lawyer has to prove that you reported the accident or called 911 to the scene.

Hit and Run Defense Process

The hit and run defense process begins the moment you are arrested. You need to contact your attorney at this stage. If you do not have an existing attorney, you need to go through the selection process carefully. Not every lawyer has the time, resources, and zeal to invest their time or resources to get you the best outcome, some are after the payment, and they are out. Ensure you find a lawyer who is willing to listen to you, gives you advice, and allows you to make decisions or present your opinions.

Your attorney will begin by arranging bail on your behalf to get you out of jail. In most cases, referral by an attorney to a bail agent can earn you a substantial discount; therefore, you will have to pay lower.

In addition to the discount, a lawyer will represent you during the bail hearing and may negotiate for a reduction of bail – all of which work in your favor. If you have a clean record and have strong ties to the community, the lawyer could request a cognizance release, for which you do not have to pay.

Having a lawyer at this early stage can prevent mistakes such as self-incrimination. In most cases, officers question you even after an arrest. If you are not aware of your Miranda rights or are scared, you may give incriminating statements that act against you in court.

After securing your release, he or she will start the investigation. The investigation could include examining your car, the cars of other drivers involved in the accident, and cross-examining witnesses. He or she will also examine police reports to get the reported account of what happened during the accident.

In some cases, your lawyer may require an accident reconstruction expert to reconstruct the scene of the accident, including how the accident might have happened. Reconstructing an accident scene is important in some cases since the testimony included in a hit and run comes from witnesses and the alleged victims of the crime. In such cases, they may fail to provide accurate information that could result in a wrongful conviction.

The opinion of an accident reconstruction expert can also help in determining whether the accident was perceptible to the driver, which can cast doubt on the case against you. If the evidence against you is weak, the prosecution can convince the prosecution to drop your charges.

During the pre-trial phase of the criminal proceedings, your lawyer and the prosecution will present the evidence they have. At this point, your lawyer can challenge this evidence. He or she may pinpoint weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. In addition, he or she may initiate motions to suppress evidence that was acquired illegally. 

In some cases, the prosecution may offer a plea bargain where you plead guilty to a lesser offense if they realize their case is not strong enough. Before agreeing to the plea bargain, your lawyer will examine the advantages and disadvantages of going to trial, by considering the evidence against you, the weakness of the prosecution’s case, and the strength of your defense.

If your lawyer believes that plea bargaining is the best option, then you can agree to it. However, if there is a higher chance of you being acquitted or the charges being dismissed, then a plea bargain is not the best option.

If your case is not resolved at the pre-trial stage, then you will proceed to trial where you have a right to a jury trial. During the trial, the prosecution and defense will present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and summarize their cases. The judge will give the final ruling from the jury and sentencing applicable.

Hit and Run Penalties and Sentencing

The penalties and sentencing for a hit and run depend on whether the offense is charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony. Misdemeanor hit and run involve property damage only. The penalties for a misdemeanor hit and run include:

  • Misdemeanor probation for up to three years
  • A maximum of six months at a county jail
  • Fines not exceeding $1000
  • Restitution for damage to property
  • Two points on your driving record (DMV penalty)

The court may dismiss your misdemeanor charge on a civil compromise if you refund the victim the total cost of monetary damages from the accident.

You might be charged with felony hit and run (VC 20001) if the accident caused the injury or death of someone else. Hit and run felony can be punished as a wobbler offense depending on the circumstances of the crime, the extent of the injury, and your criminal record.

When charged as a misdemeanor, the penalties include a jail term of up to one year. When charged as a felony, the penalties include:

  • A state prison incarceration period of up to 3 years and four years in case the victim died or suffered serious bodily injury
  • A fine of up to $10,000

In most cases, your license is not suspended for a hit and run (unless it included a DUI). However, the DMV may suspend your license for accumulating too many points on your class C driving license. The DMV suspension is an administrative penalty that applies if you accumulate:

  • More than four points on your license within 12 months
  • More than six points within 24 months
  • More than eight points within 36 months

In case the DMV suspends your license for accumulating many points (are classified as a negligent operator), you will receive a mailed notice of a hearing. Your lawyer can represent you at the hearing. After your hearing, the DMV may restore or suspend your license. You might also be issued a restricted license.

Hit and Run Sentence Enhancements

Your sentence could be enhanced by getting additional charges if you committed the following crimes, alongside the hit and run:

a. Driving Under the Influence

It is a crime to drive in California with a BAC level at or exceeding .08%. If you commit a DUI hit and run, you are likely to face both charges for a hit and run and for misdemeanor DUI. In such a case, you risk additional fines, sentencing, and license suspension.

b. Driving Without a License

If it turns out that at the time of committing the hit and run, you did not have a valid license due to expiration, you may face additional charges of violating VC 12500 driving without a license law. Driving without a license is a misdemeanor whose penalties include a jail term of up to six months and a maximum fine of $1000.

Find a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me

Finding a criminal defense lawyer should be your priority if you or your loved one is arrested for a hit and run in California. Your lawyer plays a crucial role in the outcome of your case by helping you with the defense process. Since your lawyer understands the hit and run laws in California, as well as the possible defense strategies to use, you stand a better chance at fighting your charges. Contact the Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer for a free review of your case today. We will evaluate the case and advise you on the best way forward. Reach us at 310-502-1314 to get your free consultation today.