Though a hit and run incident may be unintentional, the prosecutors will focus on getting the judge to give you the harshest penalties. You stand a chance of fighting a hit and run case with an experienced lawyer by your side. Our work at Darwish Law involves offering legal advice to defendants from Santa Ana, facing such charges. Discussed below is everything you need to know about hit and run from the penalties to the legal defenses.
California Laws on Hit and Run
Hit and run is a criminal offense that qualifies as either a misdemeanor or felony depending on the impact of the accident. You may be charged under Vehicle Code 20002 if the offense is a misdemeanor or Vehicle Code 20001 if the offense is a felony. A misdemeanor hit and run charge may apply to you if you allegedly fled the accident scene without identifying yourself to the affected party/parties. You may also face criminal charges for damaging another person’s property in the accident.
One or more parties have to sustain injuries or succumb from the accident for the hit and run to qualify as a felony. In this case, the prosecutor will handle your case under Vehicle Code 20001. A felony hit and run carries heavier penalties than a misdemeanor one since it involves injuries or death.
Difference Between Misdemeanor Hit and Run and Felony Hit and Run
A misdemeanor hit and run focuses on property damage, unlike a felony hit and run, which focuses on injuries or death suffered by the other party. One of these charges may be brought against you regardless of the amount of damage caused, who was at fault, or the seriousness of the injury. The California legislature enacted both Vehicle Codes 20001 and 20002 to ensure hit and run drivers get punished whether a person sustained injuries or not. Examples of scenarios that may attract misdemeanor hit and run charges include:
- Driving away after hitting/damaging a stranger’s fence with your vehicle
- Driving away from a minor collision in which the other driver was at fault
- Driving away from an accident scene that you may have caused (though your vehicle did not collide with the other vehicle)
A felony hit and run scenario may result in a driver/pedestrian getting hospitalized or dying. This kind of scenario usually attracts more attention from both the public and law enforcement officers. Examples of a felony hit and run situation include:
- A driver making a dangerous left turn once the traffic light turns red and causing an accident between two cars that were on the road. Though the accident leaves the victims at a higher risk of developing injuries, the responsible driver does not stop and therefore may be charged with a felony hit and run.
- A driver driving away after getting rear-ended by another driver and suffering head injuries by the driver who rear-ended his car. Since the damage to the vehicle is minimal, both drivers take off without exchanging personal identifying information and therefore the driver responsible for rear-ending may be charged with a felony hit and run.
What Duties Do You Have When Involved in a Car Accident in California?
Under Vehicle Code 20002, you (the driver) must immediately stop your car when involved in a car crash that resulted in property damage. You must also share your identifying information (name/address) with the other party and give your vehicle registration/driver’s license upon request. If the vehicle does not belong to you, consider providing the name/address of its registered owner. Failing to carry out these duties can lead to a misdemeanor hit and run charge.
The prosecutor, jury, or judge may consider your actions as a disregard for other people if you fled the scene. Prosecutors and judges are usually tougher on drivers who flee accident scenes without stopping. VC 20002 highlights that drivers should leave a note with their identifying information or a summary of the event at the scene if the property owner is not present. They should also contact the local police department or the California Highway Patrol to explain the situation.
Vehicle Code 20002 (California’s misdemeanor hit and run law) does not specify a limit to the type of property damaged in a car accident. The property could be someone’s pet, fence, mailbox, or parked car. The charges will still apply to your situation whether the crash took place on private property or a public street. Though VC 20002 does not require you to share your insurance information, the insurance requirement is highlighted under Vehicle Code 1605. Failing to give this information would result in an infraction, which is punishable by a fine of up to $250.
What to Do When the Accident Involves Death or Injury
Prosecutors in California usually handle hit and run cases involving injuries or death under Vehicle Code 20001. As a driver involved in this type of crash, you have various duties. They include:
- Immediately stopping your vehicle at the scene
- Sharing your identifying information
- Providing reasonable assistance to the victims for them to seek medical attention (For instance, you may transport or arrange transportation for the victims)
- Giving your driver’s license or the license belonging to your injured passengers to any on-scene police officers or other involved parties
- Immediately contacting the California Highway Patrol office or a nearby police department
Penalties for Hit and Run in California
The potential penalties for misdemeanor hit and run depend on the nature of the particular offense. You may end up paying a maximum fine of $1,000 following a conviction for this offense. A court may also impose a jail sentence of up to six months upon your conviction for this crime.
Prosecutors have the freedom to try hit and run cases as wobblers (misdemeanor/felony) depending on your criminal history and the specific facts of your case. If the accident caused a permanent serious injury or death, your jail sentence will be more than 90 days. A felony hit and run conviction also comes with penalties ranging between $1,000 and $10,000 fine and 16 months to 3 years in prison. The state prison sentence ranges from 2 to 4 years if someone other than you died or sustained a permanent severe injury from the accident. Other penalties for a felony hit and run charge are as follows:
- Restitution (if the victim suffered injuries because you fled the scene)
- Two points on your California driving record per the DMV.
Do Hit and Run Cases Carry a Civil Compromise in California?
A California court may allow you to enter a civil compromise if the hit and run is your first offense, and no aggravating circumstances (such as alleged alcohol use) were involved. The civil compromise/remedy will involve a compromise for money damages to the person whose property was damaged as a result of your misdemeanor conduct. Your misdemeanor hit and run case may be civilly compromised as highlighted under Penal Code 1377. If the judge grants you this opportunity, your charges will be dropped after you reimburse the property owner.
How the Prosecutor Proves You Committed a Hit and Run Offense in California
The prosecution team must prove various elements of the crime to prove you violated either Vehicle Code 20001 or Vehicle Code 20002. Both felony and misdemeanor hit and run charges share one crime element in common. The element is based on the allegation that you (the driver) failed to act as highlighted in Vehicle Codes 20001 and 20002 once the accident occurred. Willfully failing to carry out these duties may mean that you intentionally failed to perform them without intending to break the law.
Proving a Misdemeanor Hit and Run
A misdemeanor hit and run charge is a result of being involved in a car accident that caused property damage while you were driving. You may face this criminal charge for allegedly knowing that either there was potential property damage or actual property damage to someone else’s property. The prosecutor can review your criminal history and driving record when deciding whether to pursue a case against you.
Proving a Felony Hit and Run
One of the facts the prosecutor has to prove in a felony hit and run case is whether your driving led to a severe accident (one with injured or dead victims). The prosecutor will also allege that you knew the crash had occurred. Other allegations will be based on whether you either knew that someone else died or sustained injuries or knew that the accident was likely to happen.
If your case proceeds to a jury trial, the jury will be asked to unanimously agree on whether or not you failed to carry out the duties highlighted under VC 20001. The jury will also determine that the crash led to the injury or death suffered by the victims before they find you guilty. Being aware of an accident where someone gets injured or dies and willfully failing to perform any of your required duties may result in a felony hit and run charge.
What it Means to Be Involved in a Car Accident
The phrase "being involved in an accident" may imply that you were connected to an accident naturally or logically. The prosecutor will not be implying that you made contact with the other property or car. When used in a hit and run case, it implies your driving led to the collision.
The “Knowledge” Aspect of a Hit and Run Case
Knowing about a hit and run incident may mean that you made statements confirming you were aware there was a collision. If the prosecutors conclude that you knew about the accident, the severity of the collision will help determine whether you must have known about the injuries or death. The prosecutor may assume you knew about the accident if your car was damaged in the crash. In this case, an investigator may examine your car to determine whether the damage sustained was consistent with the one the other parties sustained.
What “Fleeing the Scene Willfully” Means
Willful acts do not focus on breaking the law since those may focus on benefiting the perpetrator or hurting someone else. If the prosecution team alleges that you willfully fled the scene, it means you intended not to act as required. Once you knowingly leave the accident scene without exchanging information or attempting to offer reasonable assistance, you will have acted willfully.
Legal Defenses to Hit and Run Charges in the State of California
Your lawyer can come up with suitable defenses in your favor to help you fight hit and run charges. For instance, you may argue that only your car sustained damages in a misdemeanor hit and run case. You can also argue that you were not involved in the crash or were unaware of the crash in both felony and misdemeanor hit and run cases. Common legal defenses your attorney may use are as follows:
You Were Unaware of the Crash
A California prosecutor will not impose any criminal liability on you if you were unaware that you were involved in a car crash. However, if there was significant damage done to someone else’s stationary property or car, it may be difficult to use this defense in court. Your lawyer can use this defense if you hit a pet or animal without noticing or if you did not feel the impact of the property damage.
Your Vehicle Was the Only Property that Was Damaged
You can use this legal defense if you were driving a small car that sustained damages after hitting a large truck. If the truck was not damaged, you have no duty to stop at the scene and give your identifying information according to Vehicle Code 20002. The same defense applies to a situation in which your vehicle hits a fence, which remains unharmed.
Someone Else Had Access or Stole Your Car
If your vehicle was involved in a hit and run without your knowledge, this legal defense may come handy to your case. You may use it if you had recently filed a stolen or missing vehicle report or there were no eyewitnesses to reveal your identity. The prosecutor’s main task is to prove that you were operating the car that was involved in the hit and run accident. Though your vehicle may have caused the crash, that alone is not enough for you to face criminal charges.
You Were the Only Victim Injured in the Accident
Vehicle Code 20001 highlights that drivers must carry out certain duties when someone other than them suffers an injury while they are driving. If you are the only person who is injured in the accident, you do not have to observe these requirements. Using this legal defense can help you beat a felony hit and run charge brought against you.
You Did Not Intend to Flee the Scene or Fail to Leave Your Identifying Information
A hit and run driver can flee the scene of an accident for personal safety reasons. For instance, you can argue that an angry mob wanted to beat you after hitting a pedestrian. The court will want to know whether you immediately alerted the police about the accident after leaving the scene. If there is adequate evidence supporting this claim, you stand a chance to fight the felony hit and run charges.
While a hit and run attracts hefty penalties in California, the offense can be charged with other offenses. The prosecutor may allege that you were driving under the influence at the time of the accident and charge you with DUI. You may also face charges such as vehicular manslaughter and driving without a license as discussed below:
Driving Without a License
Operating a motor vehicle without a driver’s license is a crime in the State of California as highlighted under Vehicle Code 12500. You may face this criminal charge together with a hit and run charge at the same time driving without a license is a misdemeanor offense with penalties including fines (up to $1,000) and a jail sentence of up to six months.
If you were allegedly driving under the influence of drugs/alcohol at the time of the hit and run accident, you may face two criminal charges. They include DUI and hit and run. Your DUI charges may stem from operating a vehicle with a BAC of 0.08 percent or more or operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs. A conviction for a misdemeanor DUI charge may attract a jail sentence (96 hours to six months), fines ($390 to $1,000) and a 6 to 10-month license suspension/restriction.
Vehicular manslaughter charges usually stem from driving in an illegal/dangerous way or knowingly causing an accident for financial gain. You may face them if your hit and run accident resulted in the death of another person and you allegedly drove illegally/dangerously to profit from the accident. The prosecutor may add “vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated” charges to your case if you were under the influence of drugs at that time.
Find a Competent Hit and Run Lawyer Near Me
Your constitutional rights entitle you to a lawyer and a fair trial when facing criminal charges of any nature. Darwish Law helps residents of Santa Ana, exercise these rights through expert legal representation. Book an appointment for your case by calling our Orange County criminal lawyer at 714-887-4810.