Hit and run is a very serious vehicle crime in California. It occurs when a motorist causes a vehicle accident or is involved in an accident, but flees the scene before the arrival of the police. California law provides a detailed guideline on what motorists must do if they are involved in a crash. The most important is to stop, offer help to the injured, and provide your details so that other motorists or anyone else in the accident can reach out to you if need be.
However, hit and runs happen all the time, sometimes knowingly or unknowingly. Thus, you might find yourself facing grave charges of hit and run in Anaheim, CA, even when you weren't the driver at the time of the accident or you weren't aware that an accident occurred in the first place. When that happens, our experienced criminal attorneys at California Criminal Lawyer Group could help you fight your charges in court.
Legal Definition of California Hit and Run
California traffic rules are meant to keep motorists and other road users safe at all times. But that does not always happen. Accidents happen when we least expect them. What you do after the accident matters a lot. Whether you were to blame for the accident or not, the law has provided a clear guideline on what you should do if you are involved in a collision. Maybe you crashed on another vehicle, a pedestrian, motorcyclist or bicyclist, or even an object or structure on the road. Anyone involved in a vehicle accident must not leave the scene until the police process the scene and clear them. They must willingly provide their identifying information to anyone involved. Fleeing the scene of an accident could bring forth hit & run charges, even when you are not to blame.
A hit and run involves leaving the scene of an accident immediately after the accident, without providing help or leaving your contacts. In most instances, fleeing the scene of the accident shows that you are running and avoiding blame like an already guilty person would do. The police will assume that you were hiding something and could conclude that you were at fault. Other than that, you will face charges for hit and run. It is a grave offense that could leave you serving a lengthy prison time and paying a hefty penalty in California.
However, the burden of proof in cases like these falls on the prosecutor. During your trial, the court will task the prosecutor with proving your charges beyond a reasonable doubt. It is the only way the judge can give a guilty verdict. Thus, the district attorney must prove all the elements or facts of this offense, as detailed under California VC 20001 and 20002. These facts are:
- While driving, you were involved in a crash.
- The crash resulted in the damage of someone else’s property or physical injuries, or death.
- You knew or should have reasonably known that you were in an accident that resulted in property damage, death, or injuries.
- You willingly failed to pull over at the crash scene, thereby failing to provide your identifying information to the injured person or property owner.
To understand the offense even better, let us look at some of the elements in greater detail:
As used under this statute, a vehicle accident could be anything from a minor crash on an object on the road to a devastating accident involving one or more vehicles. Therefore, it would count as a criminal offense if you hit a signpost or someone else’s fence and left the scene without providing your identifying information to the owner or person responsible. The law requires you to stop as long as you were involved in a vehicle accident, regardless of fault. Therefore, if someone else caused the collision you were involved in, you must also stop and exchange your identifying details with other people that have been in the accident.
Identifying information, in this case, is your name, physical address, car registration number, and vehicle insurance details. The information will help if the property owner or injured person decides to pursue compensation against the person responsible for that accident. When you provide identifying information at an accident scene, the information must be enough for others and the police to reach out to you in case of a need.
You willingly do something when you do it on purpose. Thus, the district attorney must prove that you willingly left the crash scene, despite knowing the accident and likely results. Note that willingly leaving the accident scene doesn't mean that you intended to commit a crime, hurt, or gain an advantage over another person.
Additionally, a motorist's duty to pull over at an accident scene should apply regardless of the person or party that caused the crash. Thus, you can face charges just for fleeing the scene, even if someone else was responsible for that accident. Additionally, that duty applies regardless of where the accident occurred. For instance, if you drive through another person’s private property, you will still face charges under this law if you flee the scene without giving the property owner your details.
If the property owner is not around, the person driving the vehicle at the time of the accident must willingly stop and leave a written note for the owner, complete with all their identifying details.
Property damage will include any property, big and small, including pets.
Misdemeanor and Felony Charges for Hit and Run
California hit and run can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the details of your case.
A misdemeanor charge for a hit and run occurs when you flee the scene after being involved in a vehicle accident that resulted in damaged property. The property does not always have to be valuable; it could be a mere fence, an electric post, a signpost along the road, or personal property by the side of the road. You might have lost control of your vehicle and crashed on another person’s gate. Or you could have hit a parked bicycle by the roadside as you were trying to avoid hitting a biker.
To prove your charges, the prosecutor will prove all the elements of the offense listed above, including the fact that you were in an accident that resulted in the damage of someone else’s property. Still, you failed to pull over at the crash scene to provide the property owner with your identifying information. Stopping at the scene doesn't mean you are admitting fault, even when it was evident you were in the wrong. The police will investigate the accident to determine the responsible party.
Note that the absence of the property owner at the scene of an accident is not an excuse for you to flee the crash scene. For instance, if you hit another person’s parked vehicle at a parking lot, you must find a way to leave your contact details with them. If the vehicle owner is not around and you do not know them, the law requires you to leave a written note on their vehicle with your identifying information.
On the other hand, a felony charge for a hit and run occurs when you flee the scene of a vehicle accident where someone else has been killed or injured. The offense is covered under California VC 20001. Someone else’s death or injury is what makes the crime of hit and run a felony offense. For the court to find you guilty under this statute, the district attorney must prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- That you were involved in a vehicle accident while driving
- The accident caused another person’s injuries or death
- You knew or should have reasonably known that another person was injured or killed in the accident
- But you willingly failed to pull over at the scene, provide assistance to the injured person, or your identifying details to the people involved or the police
Remember that a willful act is done on purpose or willingly, without intending to commit a crime, hurt or gain an advantage over another person.
Penalties for a California Hit and Run Sentence
A misdemeanor conviction for hit and run in California is penalized by:
- A maximum of six months in jail
- A fine of not exceeding $1,000
Note that you could receive summary probation in place of jail time.
If you make total compensation to the property owner, the judge might dismiss your criminal charge under a civil compromise. However, this mostly happens to first-time defendants whose charges did not involve driving while intoxicated.
Note that you might not be criminally liable if the accident only damaged your vehicle. You might not face hit and run charges if the accident did not result in the damage of someone else’s property. For instance, if you were involved in a collision that only left your vehicle damaged, you may be right to flee the scene. However, it is advisable to take pictures of the other vehicle or property in the accident as proof of no damage.
But if you are unsure if the accident damaged the property, the law requires you to stop and exchange contacts with other drivers or the property owner. Some damages, especially to a vehicle, may not be immediately visible to you after the accident. Examples of these damages include:
- Misaligned tires
- Reducing battery life
- Broken bulbs
- Delayed computer diagnostic system
Leaving your contacts with the other driver ensures that the driver can call you as soon as they notice the damage that the accident might have caused. It makes settlements easier.
Sometimes vehicle accidents cause injuries that may not be obvious immediately after the crash. Thus, you may have thought that the accident only caused property damage to realize that another person incurred injuries in the accident. Fleeing in that particular accident scene will result in felony charges.
Insurance providers require policyholders to report any accident as soon as it occurs. Any delay could result in a denied claim, which will leave you with significant losses. That is another reason why the exchange of information at the crash scene is essential.
Penalties for Hit and Run Felony Charges
A felony conviction for hit and run is likely to result in even graver penalties upon conviction. Here are penalties you will likely receive if you flee the accident scene in which a person died or incurred injuries:
- A maximum of four years in jail
- Maximum penalties of $10,000
The judge may decide to grant you formal probation in place of part or entire jail time.
Legal Defense Strategies for California Hit & Run Charges
A conviction for a California hit and run is life-altering. A conviction in your criminal record is likely to impact your life in many ways. For instance, you may face difficulties in finding suitable employment. A felony conviction could carry additional consequences on top of criminal penalties, including losing your gun rights. Thus, it is advisable to fight your charges to avoid a sentence during your trial. That could be so if you engage the assistance of a competent criminal attorney. Your lawyer can utilize one or more of the following defense strategies to have the court drop or reduce your charges.
No Injury or Property Damage
An injury or property damage is an essential element of California hit and run. In the absence of the two, you might not be guilty under California VC 20001 and 20002.
A misdemeanor hit and run offense requires you to have fled the scene of an accident in which someone else’s property was damaged. If the damage did not occur in the first place, you would not face charges for leaving the scene of an accident without leaving your identifying details. It could be that the accident left only your vehicle with damages. In that case, the court will dismiss your charges.
Again, you might not be guilty of a hit-and-run felony charge if no one died or was injured in the accident. However, there might have been property damage in the accident. If you fled the accident scene after verifying that no one lost their life or was injured in the accident, but another person’s property was damaged, the court will reduce your felony charges to misdemeanor hit and run. As previously mentioned, a misdemeanor conviction carries a lighter sentence than a felony conviction. A reduced charge would be better than facing the consequences of a felony conviction.
No willful Act
A hit and run in California requires an offender to have wilfully fled the scene of an accident after being involved in a vehicle accident where some property was damaged, a person lost their life, or injured. A willful act is done on purpose or willingly. Thus, it will not count as a willful act if you did not notice the accident in the first place.
It is normal for motorists to be involved in a minor accident and not even notice it until so much later. You probably hit an object by the road or hit another vehicle or motorcycle and not realize it. In that case, you will not have willingly fled the accident scene.
If you were driving with your radio on, you might not notice minor scrapes on the road. The other driver would assume that you are fleeing from responsibility, thus, calling the police on you.
Depending on the facts of your case, your competent attorney may be able to convince the jury of your unwillingness to flee the scene after an accident.
However, note that modern cars have a sensor that beeps when you get too close to other vehicles. Therefore, this defense could only work if you were driving an older model.
You Were Misidentified
In most hit-and-run accidents, the culprit leaves the scene of an accident so fast to avoid being identified by the people around. That could cause innocent people to be misidentified as suspects. If you were around the scene of the accident at the time, you could be misidentified by a person and even named as the suspect if the person did not have a chance of seeing the real culprit. It becomes even worse if you drive the same car as the suspect or have similar physical traits.
Your lawyer can apply strong defense skills to convince the jury you weren’t the actual perpetrator. He/she can gather compelling evidence, including pictures and videos taken after the accident, to support their argument. Your lawyer can also call in eyewitnesses who could testify that another person and not you were the person who fled the scene after an accident. If that works, the court will dismiss your charges.
Note that prosecutors do not always have compelling evidence to support hit-and-run charges. They rely on eyewitness accounts and evidence collected at the accident scene to arrest and open charges against the alleged defendant. You could have the court drop your charges if you challenge the insufficient evidence the prosecutor presents in court. Without compelling evidence to support your charges, a California court cannot find you guilty as charged.
It Wasn't Safe to Stop
You could have your charges dismissed if you convince the court that it was not safe to stop at the scene when the accident happened. Sometimes after a crash, it is safer to continue driving than stopping. For instance, if there was no place to stop the vehicle at that particular spot safely. When the traffic is heavy, drivers have to be careful when pulling over to avoid causing an even more severe accident.
You might not have stopped at the scene if the other driver, drivers, or people were angered and ready to fight you. You could tell the court of your fear for your safety. It would even be better if you drove straight to a police station. That way, the court would have dismissed your charges.
Additionally, you would have been excused for not stopping at the scene if you had an emergency on board your vehicle. It could be that you or another person was injured or sick and needed emergency medical care. Stopping at that instance would have worsened their situation. With proof, the court will drop your charges.
Some of these excuses could compel the judge to reduce or drop your charges.
You Were Not The Driver
Hit & run charges will only apply if you were the driver at the time of the accident. The law requires drivers to stop if they are involved in a vehicle accident to help and provide their identifying information to those affected in the accident. Therefore if you weren’t the driver at the time, you could not face hit & run charges.
Accidents happen so quickly, especially on busy roads. If a driver flees the scene immediately after causing an accident, it might be impossible to identify the actual driver unless the people around the scene know the person well. Thus, it is possible to be recognized as the driver, while in the real sense, you were the passenger or someone else was driving your car at that time.
The court will require you to identify the actual culprit. Proving your innocence would be enough to cause the judge to drop your charges.
Find an Anaheim Criminal Attorney Near Me
Hit and run would be a serious charge in California, especially if someone lost their life or incurred injuries in the accident. You could receive a felony conviction and all the consequences it comes with if you are found guilty. That is why you must plan a solid defense against the charges if you face hit and run charges in Anaheim, CA. At California Criminal Lawyer Group, our competent criminal attorneys work round the clock to protect the rights of their clients. We’ll walk you through the legal process and fight by your side until you obtain a favorable outcome of your case. Contact us at 714-766-0965, and let’s consider the facts of your case for the best defense strategy.