Hit and Run

In California, Vehicle Code section 20002 addresses the misdemeanor crime of hit and run. The law requires that any driver involved in an accident causing property damage or injury to another stop and exchange identification information with the other driver. Sometimes people just get scared and leave after a minor accident, figuring the collision or minor tap of the bumper was so minor there is likely no damage to the other vehicle. However, even a scratch can count as “property damage” so failing to stop after a crash (regardless of how minor) is a sure way to receive hit and run charges. Hit and run charges can either be a misdemeanor or felony offense but VC section 20002 addresses misdemeanor cases.

Hit and Run Overview

Accidents are an inevitable outcome of using motor vehicles, whether it is a fender bender or a high-speed head-on collision. The law instructs on what motorists should do in case of motor vehicle accidents. Failing to meet one of these duties could lead to a hit and run charges and a possible conviction.

The first duty after an accident is to stop at the scene of the collision or the safest place near the scene. Once you stop at the scene, you have the responsibility to do the following:

  • Find the owner of the other vehicle or damaged property,

  • Present your drivers license or identification information which includes current address and vehicle registration to the other party,

  • If you are not the owner of the vehicle you were driving, then provide contact information including the current address of the owner,

  • If the owner of the property or vehicle that you damaged is not present (such as when hitting a parked car, or a pole, tree or wall), you must leave a note in an obvious place and include your name, address, contact number and explanation of what occurred. In such cases, the law also states you are required to report the collision to the local police department.

If there are injuries, a driver is required to call the police. However, in minor non-injury accidents, the police are often not contacted. In addition, the DMV requires all drivers to self-report their accident if the accident resulted in $1000 or more in property damage, or if there was injury or death. The DMV requires such reports be made within 10 days of the collision. Failure to do so, if the DMV finds out, can result in the DMV issuing a suspension of the person’s driver license.

[For minor property-only collisions where the police are not involved, and where there are no hit and run charges, a driver who fails to self-report their collision to the DMV will usually not suffer any penalty because, for the most part, insurance companies to do not report non-injury accidents to the DMV.]

Note that these responsibilities apply regardless of the party responsible for the accident. Most people are not aware that even the victim of a hit and run can be charged with the crime of hit and run if the victim leaves the scene without providing his or her information to the other driver or owner of the property.

Remember, a hit and run crime can be committed even if you did not damage another vehicle. For example, backing out and hitting and damaging a neighbor’s retaining wall, or hitting a tree and damaging it, requires you stop and attempt to contact the owner of the property you may have damaged.

Also, this crime can technically be proven even if the driver did not know that he or she caused damage to another’s property, as long as the collision was of such a nature that a reasonable person would have known “that it was probable that property had been damaged.” (See jury instruction Calcrim 2150.)

Misdemeanor Hit and Run

Vehicle Code 20002 of California makes it a crime for a motorist to fail to stop after being involved in an accident that causes any type of property damage. Prosecutors have to prove four elements beyond a reasonable doubt before the court can convict you for a VC 20002 violation. The elements include:

  • You were involved in a vehicle accident while driving

  • The accident caused damage to another person’s property

  • You knew or should have known that the accident resulted in damage to a property

  • You willfully failed to stop at the scene or provide your identifying information to the person whose property was damaged

The law states clearly that in case of an auto accident, you must stop and exchange information with the other parties or victims of the accident. You must leave this information even if the owner is not present at the scene.

Leaving the scene of the accident constitutes a willful act, even if you lacked the intent to break the law, harm another person, or gain an advantage. The information you leave must be adequate and understandable to the victim. You should include your name, contact details, and a description of the type and location of the damage caused.

The penalties for misdemeanor hit and run in California include:

  • A county jail sentence not exceeding six months

  • A fine of up to $1000

  • Summary probation

  • Two points on your driving record

Felony Hit and Run

California vehicle code 20001 VC defines felony hit and run as the offense of leaving the scene of an accident when another person has sustained an injury or has died due to the accident. The statute applies if you are involved in an accident that hurt or kill third parties, other than yourself. Under VC 20001, the prosecution has the discretion to file misdemeanor OR felony charges. This is referred to as a “wobbler” offense.

The elements of felony hit and run that the prosecution must prove are:

  • You were involved in a vehicle accident while driving.

  • The accident caused the injury or death of another person, other than your own

  • You knew or should have reasonably known that you were involved in a vehicle accident, and another person was injured or killed.

  • You willfully failed to stop at the scene, provide reasonable assistance to the injured person, and provide personal information to the police.

Like in misdemeanor hit and run, you act willfully if you fail to perform your legal obligations after an accident – it does not matter that you had no intention to break the law, cause harm or gain an advantage over another person. You must also provide adequate information that lets the receiving party know that you were driving the vehicle.

You are also supposed to provide this information if the accident, injury, or death occurred in another person's private property.

When filed as a misdemeanor, a hit and run causing injury or death can result in penalties that include a jail sentence of at least 90 days, up to one year and a fine of up to $10,000.

When charged as a felony, the penalties include a jail sentence of up to three years if there is no “death or permanent, serious injury.” The accused can also be given probation with no incarceration. If the incident did result in another person’s death, or permanent or serious injury, then the court is instructed to sentence a defendant to two, three or four years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The DMV will also add two points to your driving record for the offense.

The language in Vehicle Code section 20001 does include a clause that allows a judge, in the interest of justice, to not impose a 90-day minimum sentence.

Hit and Run Court Process

The hit and run court process in California begins with a report by the victim or witness to the crime. Such people can provide information about the accident, such as:

  • The make of the vehicle

  • The plate number

  • A description of the driver

  • Accounts and statements of eyewitnesses

  • Video footage of the accident (for instance from CCTV cameras near the scene of the accident)

  • Photographs from the accident scene

  • Marks on the road

  • Defective road conditions

Police will investigate the incident and compile a report in about ten days, after which, they might arrest the possible suspects. After the investigation, the police will submit copies of the report to the DA's office and the police station. The DA can choose to file charges or dismiss the case based on the evidence the police have.

In some cases, an accused will be arrested before the DA or prosecutor files charges. Other times, the DA will apply for an arrest warrant which, when granted, gives the police the right to arrest you. The police might not need a warrant if they catch you committing the crime or through a police pursuit after you flee the scene.

Most people arrested for a hit and run make several mistakes, which later affect their case. Some of these mistakes include:

  • Delays in hiring an attorney: failing to hire an attorney soon increases the chances of making wrong decisions and answering questions that incriminate you. However, you can protect your rights by channeling all your communication with the police through your attorney.

  • Admitting guilt without knowing the facts of the case: police officers have the permission to make outrageous statements to get you into admitting guilt. However, the best step to take is to avoid admitting guilt. Remain silent! If approached by an officer and questioned, always politely invoke your constitutional right to remain silent and your right to have an attorney present before answering ANY questions. Talking to an attorney before talking to police is always the best approach.

  • Making false statements can also negatively affect your case. Again, politely tell the investigating officer that you are invoking your right to remain silent and then call an attorney for immediate advice.

The possibility exists that the prosecution is yet to file charges at the time of your arrest, or, if not arrested, the time you were issued a citation for the offense. Such a delay gives you the chance to negotiate an out of court settlement (do not contact a victim yourself, as you could be accused of tampering with a witness or obstructing justice), which lessen the possibility of a criminal conviction. Therefore, hiring an attorney at an early stage is always preferable.

Your attorney will also examine the evidence the prosecution possesses which includes the police report, witness statements and possibly audio, video and photographic evidence. The police report is a source of evidence for the prosecution, but if it is inaccurate or includes evidence of a constitutional violation, it can be the basis of dismissal or suppression of evidence.

The next step, if the prosecution files charges, is your arraignment. The arraignment proceedings will depend on whether the offense is a felony or a misdemeanor.

You will be arraigned within 48 hours if you are in custody (excluding weekends and holidays) or until the statute of limitations runs out if you are not in custody. (With COVID19, the custody time prior to seeing a judge for the first time can be extended to 7 days.) The following are some activities you can expect during an arraignment:

  • The court reads the charges against you,

  • Entering a plea (guilty, not guilty or no contest)

    • On the initial arraignment date it is rarely wise to plead guilty or no contest since the accused will probably not know the evidence the prosecution has, or the potential defenses that may exist.

  • The setting of bail depending on the circumstances,

  • Request for a public defender (if you do not have the resources to hire private counsel), or

  • Continuance

  • Advice on your constitutional rights such as the rights to a free and speedy trial, the right to cross-examine witnesses, and the right to legal counsel

Pleading guilty or no contest will lead to sentencing while pleading not guilty takes the case to the pretrial stage for misdemeanor cases, and the preliminary hearing or preliminary hearing setting for a felony charge.

The pretrial conference is typically scheduled two or more weeks after the arraignment. This stage involves several activities, such as:

  • Exchange of information and evidence between the prosecution and the defense

  • Plea bargaining if appropriate

  • Pretrial motions such as motions to suppress evidence

Plea-bargaining is a way to negotiate for a lesser sentence, lesser charges, or alternative sentencing (for instance, probation, house arrest, or community labor instead of jail or prison). Judges may be involved in the pretrial phase to ensure that the decisions made are constitutional and if there is a guilty or no contest plea, the court will need to ensure the plea is made knowingly and voluntarily.

When a criminal case cannot be resolved at the pretrial phase, it is usually because:

  • Neither side can agree to a plea offer or

  • The defense wants to proceed to trial and fight the charges.

Plea-bargaining for a felony case can happen at any stage of the court process before the jury gives its verdict. The final stage of the hit and run court process is the trial, in which the defense and prosecution present their case before a jury. The jury determines whether all elements of the case are met beyond a reasonable doubt before settling on the verdict. The sentencing follows the jury verdict.

Legal Defenses to Hit and Run

Your defense strategy will have a great impact on the outcome of the case. It should be based on the weaknesses and facts of the case. A good defense strategy consists of carefully selected legal defenses and arguments. Some of the defenses you can use to fight hit and run charges include:

  • You were not driving the car: in most cases, a third party will see a hit and run accident and report to the police. He or she might record the license plate number and description of your car. However, it could be possible that you were not driving that car at the time of the accident. For instance, if you lent your car to a friend at the time of the accident, or someone had stolen it, or perhaps a family member who lives with you and had access to the vehicle was driving it…These scenarios can form the basis of a defense. Remember however, that the defense is not required to prove anything. Merely raising a reasonable doubt to the jury that you were not driving the vehicle is legally sufficient to require a not-guilty verdict. In other words, if the district attorney cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were driving the vehicle, then they cannot prove their case! Oftentimes witnesses cannot see the driver, and if there is no other evidence such as a confession or video clearly identifying you as the driver, the prosecution will have a difficult time proving you were the driver at the time of the incident.

  • You did not willfully flee the scene: hit and run charges are based on the assumption that you willfully fled the scene without stopping. However, if the act of driving away was not willful (for example, because someone threatened you into leaving the scene), you cannot be charged with hit and run.

  • You did not know that an accident occurred: weather conditions such as strong winds can make it hard to tell when you caused or were involved in an accident. Such a defense is applicable for minor accidents that do not cause significant property damage. They are common, for example in parking lots or heavy traffic. You must also prove that it is reasonable under the circumstances to believe that an accident did not occur. For example, if you are backing up and very slightly tap the bumper of the vehicle behind you, it may be the kind of contact that could go unnoticed or one in which it would be perfectly reasonable to assume no damage was caused.

  • You were the only person injured in the accident, or only your property was damaged: Hit and run charges do not apply if only the defendant or his or her property was injured or damaged in the accident. For example, if you hit someone's brick wall, the brick wall will likely remain standing, but your car could be damaged. In this case, leaving the scene of the accident is not a crime if the accident would not cause a reasonable person to believe that damage was caused to another’s property. The same case applies if you are the only one who suffered an injury due to the accident.

  • You could not provide reasonable assistance due to circumstances outside your control. For example, if you were injured or trapped inside your car, you cannot be held liable for failing to assist the victim(s) or providing your identification paperwork.

The goal of these legal defenses is to poke holes in the prosecution's case or to provide an affirmative defense. Before developing these defenses, your attorney will go through the evidence the prosecution has provided, along with any evidence subpoenaed by your lawyer and evaluate the facts of your case. If the accused has a strong defense, your attorney may be able to convince a reasonable prosecutor to dismiss the charges without the time and expense of a jury trial.

Civil Compromising a Hit and Run Case is Sadly No Longer Permitted by Law

Note that, until February of 2019, it was possible to have a misdemeanor hit and run case dismissed through a civil compromise. A civil compromise is a relief available for people who have committed misdemeanor offenses that result in both criminal and civil liability.

Previously, it was possible to avoid a hit and run conviction by reimbursing the victim for the full amount of property damaged. The victim also had to appear in court or provide a notarized declaration and express their wish that the offender not be criminally prosecuted.

However, in the case of California vs. Dimacali (2019), the appellate court ruled that a civil compromise is not applicable to hit and run cases. Penal Code section 1377 allows for a civil compromise in cases where the damage to the victim’s property is directly caused by the criminal conduct.

The court in Dimacali argued that the criminal activity in a hit and run case flows from the act of leaving the scene without providing one’s information to the other party. Causing or being involved in an accident or collision, is not itself the crime. Therefore, the court opined that the damage to the victim’s property is actually caused by the non criminal act of being involved in a collision. A civil compromise only applies to acts that are both criminal and have a civil remedy at law. The criminal act, which is leaving the scene without providing one’s information, does not have a civil remedy at law since that act does not cause any monetary damage to the victim. The Court agreed with the prosecution and other case law that the collision was not an element of the criminal act of a hit and run. Therefore, the damage to another’s property, which was caused by the collision, could not be said to have been caused by the criminal act, since the criminal act involved the act of fleeing the scene without providing the required information. The Court in Dimacali overruled the case of People v. Tischman (1995) 35 Cal.App.4th 174 which had long held that a hit and run case could be civilly compromised.

Related Charges

Hit and run is a serious offense and can be charged alongside other crimes. Some of these crimes include:

  1. DUI Hit and Run

Drivers who cause an accident sometimes flee the scene in fear of prosecution for driving under the influence. However, if you commit both a DUI and a hit and run, the prosecutor could charge you with both crimes in the same complaint. Your sentence and penalties will also be higher if convicted of a hit and run and DUI.

The court will also impose felony or misdemeanor Hit and run penalties based on whether you caused property damage or injury or death of another person. The Dui penalties will depend upon how many prior DUIs you have suffered within the past ten years, whether anyone besides yourself was injured and the facts of your case.

Remember that in a DUI case, the prosecution must prove you were driving at the time you were legally impaired or had a .08 blood alcohol content. Many times in a hit and run, the police do not make contact with the accused until hours or days later. It is usually hard to prove that the defendant was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of driving if that officer did not contact the defendant within a very short time of the collision.

For example, if a detective comes to the door of a suspect and claims her or she was seen fleeing the scene of collision few hours earlier, and even if that suspect is clearly intoxicated when he or she answers the door, there is insufficient evidence to prove the suspect was impaired at the time he or she was driving. The suspect could have easily consumed alcohol or ingested drugs after arriving home. The important thing to remember is that when an officer or detective wants a suspect to answer questions, they should always politely refuse and exercise his or her right to remain silent.

The penalties of a misdemeanor hit and run with a DUI charge may include:

  • Summary probation

  • Fines

  • Mandatory attendance in DUI school

  • Suspension of your driver’s license and/ or mandatory installation of an IID or a work restricted license

  • Possible jail time and/or community service

  • AA meetings, MADD, or Hospital and Morgue program

  1. Driving without a Valid Driver’s License or on a Suspended License

Some drivers leave the scene of an accident because they are driving without a driver’s license or on a suspended license. Vehicle code section 12500(a) and VC 14601.1(a) address these legal violations. California requires that you have a license every time you are driving. The license could be issued from another state but must be valid. Also, you are required to get a California license if you are now living in California.

The offense of driving on a suspended license or driving without a license can be charged as an infraction, which attracts a fine of $250, or as a misdemeanor. As a misdemeanor, penalties for both these offenses carry a fine between $250 to $1000 and a maximum jail term of up to six months. However, usually if the driver shows proof of correction and can demonstrate that he or she obtained a valid license, the prosecutor will often agree to infract or dismiss such charges.

  1. Vehicular Manslaughter-- VC section 192(c) definition

Vehicular manslaughter refers to the crime of killing another person while driving a vehicle and by either acting negligently while committing an illegal act that is not a felony (with or without gross negligence), or by committing a legal act but in an illegal manner, that can lead to death of another (with or without gross negligence). (Pretty confusing!)

The court can convict you for a felony, misdemeanor, or a wobbler offense depending on the nature of negligence you displayed. Vehicular manslaughter, through ordinary negligence, is a misdemeanor with a county jail sentence of up to one year.

When convicted for vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, the offense becomes a wobbler. The penalties include up to one year in a county jail for a misdemeanor and a state prison sentence of up to six years for a felony.

In a misdemeanor vehicle manslaughter offense, the prosecutor must prove:

  1. the driver committed a non-felony crime (a misdemeanor of infraction) while driving, or committed an act that is legal but did so in an illegal manner, and

  2. that the act was dangerous to life at the time the act was committed, and

  3. the accused acted with “ordinary” negligence (as opposed to gross negligence), and

  4. that the act caused the death of the victim.

Ordinary negligence can be something as simple and seemingly innocent as driving while the sun was in your eyes for a few seconds, or you were driving slightly over the speed limit.

When gross negligence was involved, then the case is a wobbler and can be filed as a misdemeanor or a felony.

For vehicular manslaughter involving gross negligence, the prosecutor would need to prove these criminal elements:

        1. the driver committed a non-felony crime (a misdemeanor of infraction) while driving, or committed an act that is legal but did so in an illegal manner, and

        2. that the act was dangerous to life at the time the act was committed, and

        3. The act was done with gross negligence, and

        4. This act was the cause of the victim’s death.

Find a Hit and Run Defense Lawyer Near Me

Fighting criminal charges alone is a risky decision – even if you are a skilled attorney. That is why lawyers often lament when they see one of their own colleagues representing themselves in court. The old saying is that “any lawyer who represents themselves has a fool for a client.” If a lawyer should not represent themselves, then clearly a person without a law degree should not represent him or herself in court. The prosecution will take full advantage of a pro-per defendant’s ignorance. Criminal defense requires thorough research, constitutional law knowledge, experience writing motions, knowledge in how to investigate and collect evidence, negotiation skills, understanding of the evidence code and criminal law procedure, and trial experience.

Having a caring, experienced and passionate criminal defense lawyer will put you in the best possible position to achieve a good outcome in your case. Attorney Ann Gottesman has been representing those facing hit and run charges in Pasadena and Los Angles courts for over 14 years. She cares about the wellbeing of each client and has a long history of successful outcomes in hit and run and other criminal cases.

Call Ann at 626-710-4021 for a free and confidential consultation about your hit and run case.

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