Hit and Run Defense
In California, you can be charged with a “hit and run” if you are involved in a car or motorcycle accident and leave the scene without providing your information to other parties involved in the accident or securing medical attention for an injured party.
Is Hit and Run a Felony or a Misdemeanor?
Hit and run can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Hit and run is a misdemeanor where only property was damaged in the accident. Hit and run is a felony where the accident caused a physical injury to another person. The consequences for a hit and run conviction range anywhere from informal probation to up to 4 years in state prison and thousands of dollars in fines.
While many think that hit and run cases are simple, there are actually various technical defenses and legal tactics which are effective against a hit and run charge. If you believe that you are being investigated for hit and run or if you are being charged with hit and run, it is in your best interest to immediately retain a skilled criminal defense attorney to represent you.
Local Lawyer Tip: Pre-Filing Intervention Might Prevent Criminal Prosecution!
In order to be formally accused of a crime, a prosecutor must file the case in court. Often times, hit and run cases are not filed until the detective working the case gathers enough evidence to support the prosecution. This process can take as little as a few days or can take as long as several months. This window presents a golden opportunity for your attorney to convince the detective that filing a case against you is a mistake.
The bottom line is that hiring a lawyer early in the process can make the difference between facing criminal charges and potential jail time versus avoiding a criminal case altogether.
Hit and Run Penalties
Misdemeanor Hit and Run Charges
As described above, a misdemeanor hit and run involves injury to property. This includes hitting an occupied car, an unattended car (e.g., parked car), a traffic sign, a pet dog, a mailbox or a fire hydrant.
The consequences for conviction of misdemeanor hit and run include a maximum of 6 months in county jail, 3 years informal probation, up to $1,000 in fines plus court penalties, restitution (compensation) to any victims whose property you damaged, and two points on your driver’s license.
California Vehicle Code Section 20002 specifies your obligations as a driver when you get into an accident causing property damage. Under the law, you must do the following:
- Immediately stop your vehicle in a safe place;
- Provide your name and current address to the other involved individual(s) (if present at the scene); and
- Provide your insurance information, your driver’s license and registration upon request. Note: if you are not the owner of the vehicle you are driving, the law requires that you provide the name and address of the car’s registered owner.
If you are unable to locate the owner of the property (for example, if you hit a parked car or a mailbox), the law requires that you leave a note indicating your name and number, the registered owner’s name and number (if different), a statement of what happened (“I was involved in an accident”), AND you must immediately contact the local police or the Department of the California Highway Patrol and report the accident.
Failure to comply with any one of these steps may lead to a misdemeanor hit and run offense.
Defense for Misdemeanor Hit and Run Charges
Hit and run is a highly technical charge giving your defense attorney several options to defend your case.
In order to be convicted of hit and run, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- you were involved in an accident while driving;
- that the accident damaged another’s property;
- that you knew or were aware that another’s property had been damaged (or the damage was likely under the circumstances); and
- that you willfully failed to comply with your obligations as set forth in California Vehicle Code Section 20002 (stopping, providing your name and address, etc.).
If the prosecution is unable to prove any one of the above elements, you cannot be found guilty of hit and run.
One common defense to hit and run is establishing there was no damage to another’s property [element (2) above]. For example, if you lost control of your vehicle and hit a telephone pole and only your car was damaged, there would have been no obligation for you to stop your vehicle, leave a note, or call the police. Similarly, if you rear-end another vehicle at a low rate of speed such that there was no damage to the other person’s vehicle and no injury, you could not be found guilty of hit and run even if you fled from the scene of the accident.
Another common defense to hit and run is denying that you were the driver of the vehicle. Remember, it is the prosecution’s burden to prove you were the driver, and in certain cases (where there are no eyewitnesses and no admissions indicating who the driver was) this can be an effective strategy. This defense is particularly successful where the registered owner was not the driver at the time of the accident.
It is also a defense to hit and run that the reason you did not stop was that it was not safe to do so under the circumstances. For example, if you are on a highway with no shoulder lane, and are involved in an accident changing lanes, it might be impossible to safely stop on the highway. In this scenario, the other motorist might call the police and report your not stopping before you had the opportunity to exit the highway, safely stop your vehicle, and contact the local police department to report the accident. In this case, your defense attorney could successfully argue that because you could not safely stop your vehicle, you did not “willfully” fail to stop your car.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The hit and run laws apply even if you were not at fault! For example, if you are stopped at a red light and you are rear-ended, it is still your obligation to provide the information described above if there was damage to the other motorist’s vehicle. If you immediately flee the scene, even though the car accident was not your fault, you may be guilty of hit and run.
Felony Hit and Run Charges
The primary difference between felony hit and run and misdemeanor hit and run is physical injury. If you flee the scene of an accident where somebody was injured, you may be charged with felony hit and run.
The penalties for felony hit and run offenses are severe. If you are convicted of felony hit and run, you may be facing up to 3 or 4 years in state prison (depending on the severity of the injuries), a fine of up to $10,000, restitution to the victim if you’re fleeing aggravated the injury, and 2 points on your license.
Where there is a physical injury resulting from a vehicle or car accident, California imposes additional obligations on drivers as compared to those accidents which only cause property damage.
Under California law (California Vehicle Code Section 20001) you must do the following if you are involved in an accident causing injury:
- Immediately stop your vehicle at the scene of the car accident;
- Provide your name and current address to the others involved in the accident and to law enforcement, and provide the identifying information of any injured passengers traveling with you.
- Provide your insurance information, your driver’s license and registration upon request to other parties and law enforcement. Note: if you are not the owner of the vehicle you are driving, the law requires that you provide the name and address of the car’s registered owner.
- Provide reasonable assistance to any injured person(s) in order to secure medical attention (such as calling 9-1-1 or transporting the injured person to a hospital).
- If the accident results in a death and there is no law enforcement officer on the scene of the accident, the driver must immediately contact the local police department or highway patrol
Failure to comply with any one of these obligations may lead to a felony hit and run charge.
Defense for Felony Hit and Run
Defending a felony hit and run case is similar to defending a misdemeanor hit and run charge, except that the stakes are much higher.
In order to be convicted of felony hit and run, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- you were involved in a vehicle accident while driving;
- you knew the accident had occurred;
- you knew or were aware that the accident caused another’s injury or death (or that injury or death was likely under the circumstances); and
- that you willfully failed to comply with your obligations as set forth in California Vehicle Code Section 20001 (stopping, providing efforts to secure medical attention, providing your name and address, etc.).
If the prosecution is unable to prove any one of the above elements, you cannot be found guilty of felony hit and run.
One common defense to felony hit and run is establishing there was no injury to another person. If you yourself were hurt in the accident, but nobody else was, you can be guilty of felony hit and run.
Another common defense to felony hit and run is denying that you were the driver of the vehicle. This is the same defense employed in a misdemeanor hit and run case. Because it is the prosecution’s burden to prove you were the driver, sometimes there are circumstances that make this a feasible and effective defense.
In some situations, your best defense is that you were not aware that any accident occurred. This situation arises when you were not directly involved in the accident. For example, if you are merging onto a highway and another driver is simultaneously trying to exit, the other motorist might veer away to avoid hitting you, and in doing so, collide with another car. In this scenario, you might have never noticed the other vehicle and never actually saw the accident as it unfolded behind you while you were accelerating onto the highway. If this were the case, you could not be found guilty of felony hit and run.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Just like with the misdemeanor hit and run, felony hit and run laws apply even if you were not at fault! For example, if you are stopped at a red light and you are rear-ended, it is still your obligation to provide the information described above and make reasonable efforts to seek medical attention if the person was injured in the collision. If you immediately flee the scene, even though the accident was NOT your fault, you may still be guilty of felony hit and run.
How Long Does a Hit and Run Investigation Take?
People often ask “how long before the police stop investigating a hit and run?” If there is no injury and it is only property damage, then it will be filed a misdemeanor and the must be filed within one year of the date of the incident. If the incident is a felony, the prosecutors have three years to file it from the date of the incident.
An Experienced Hit and Run Attorney in Los Angeles
If you or a loved one is being investigated for a hit and run, or was involved in an accident and left the scene without sharing information with or securing medical attention for other parties, you should contact a reputable hit and run attorney immediately for help you with your case. Calling early and dealing with the problem immediately may make the difference between a criminal conviction and freedom.
For a free and confidential consultation, contact Los Angeles hit and run lawyer Jerod Gunsberg at (323) 633-3423 or get in touch via the secure contact form on this page. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.