Accidents occur in a blink of an eye, and that simple mistake can ruin your life or the life of another person. Hit and run offenses are prevalent in California, although most people think these accidents are caused by impaired drivers. The truth is that even sober drivers are involved in cases of hit and run accidents when they panic and flee the scene after realizing they have caused damage to property, injured, or killed someone. Whether the driver was sober or intoxicated, the California laws will apply equally to them, and the penalties are severe. Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm is here to safeguard your legal rights if you are involved in a hit and run accident. We will address the definition of hit and run, its penalties, and legal defenses in the following sections.
Legal Definition of Hit and Run
There are two significant categories of hit and run. These categories are felony and misdemeanor hit and run. An individual will be charged with VC 20002 misdemeanor hit and run if they:
- Damage public or private property in an accident, and
- Flee the scene of an accident without contacting authorities or identifying themselves to the people involved.
VC 20002 states that a person who is involved in an accident while driving and causes damage of property such as cars shall instantly stop the car in the nearest location where the safety of other motorists will not be jeopardized. Upon stopping the driver should perform the following duties:
- The driver will look for the owner of the damaged property or if it is a car involved, get the name and address of the owner of the vehicle that has been damaged.
- After locating the person, the driver will present his driver’s license and car registration when requested.
- The information the driver shall provide includes his or her current home address and that of the lawful owner of the car.
- In case the driver damages an empty parked car, then he or she should leave a notice containing a name, address and what led to the damages at the scene.
VC 20001, on the other hand, defines felony hit and run. It states that it is a felony to leave the scene of an accident whereby a person has been injured or killed. So, as a driver, when an accident occurs, and someone is injured or killed, VC 20001 requires you to:
- Stop the car instantly at the scene.
- Give information about your identity to authorities or other parties at the scene.
- Provide reasonable help to anybody who is injured, such as arranging transport to the hospital or securing medical attention.
- When requested, provide your car registration and driver’s license to those involved and any of the authorities at the scene. If any of the occupants in your vehicle have been injured, you should provide information on their identity too.
- If the accident has caused fatalities and no law enforcement agencies are at the scene, you should contact the California Highway Patrol or the law enforcement department closest to the scene of the accident.
If you don’t adhere to these requirements, you will be prosecuted and charged with felony hit and run regardless of the driver who was at fault or the severity of the harm. Also, leaving the scene when some of your passengers have been injured or died will attract prosecution.
In some cases, the prosecution might charge you with both felony and misdemeanor hit and run. It occurs mostly in a hit and run accident where the vehicle was damaged, and someone in the other car sustained minor injuries. The prosecutor is afraid of not being able to prove the element of knowledge about the injuries sustained, thus bringing the two charges against you. That way, in case they can’t justify the defendant knew or should have known about the injury, then they can easily prove the person knew about the damages done on the vehicle hence convicting you.
Prosecution of Hit and Run
The prosecution must prove certain elements to the jury to convict you of hit and run. Some of the things the prosecution must establish are:
You were involved in an accident
Being involved in an accident means your car contributed to the accident either naturally or reasonably. The prosecutor doesn’t need to show that you got in actual contact with another vehicle or property. The prosecution also is required to prove that the hit and run accident you were involved in led to injuries or death in a felony charge. In a misdemeanor charge, the prosecutor will have to show you were involved in a hit and run accident causing property damage.
You knew about the accident
If you either had the knowledge or should have reasonably known that a crash had occurred causing injuries, death, or loss of property, you will be assumed to have known. Based on the severity of the accident, it will be established whether you should have at least known someone was injured, killed, or property damaged.
In felony and misdemeanor hit and run, knowledge can also be presumed if your car sustained damages from an accident and the scars are consistent with the one suffered by another party involved in a crash. The prosecution can, therefore, use knowledge to prove that you are guilty of hit and run.
Note that knowledge can be applied as a defense against hit and run offense too.
You willfully failed to perform at least one of the required duties
Willfully means you had the intent to act in the manner you did or refused to act. If you fled the scene of the accident, failed to identify yourself and share information, or never attempted to provide reasonable assistance, it is an indicator that you willfully abandoned your required duties.
If the owner to whom the car involved in a hit and run is registered to, was a passenger during the accident, then he or she and the driver might be both charged with hit and run. The prosecutor can argue that the owner advised or encouraged the driver to break the law.
For example, Martin is a CEO in a large law firm. Because he is always busy working, he has a personal driver who drives him to different places. Martin often sits at the back of the car busy on his laptop. One day, Martin is late from a meeting and wants to get home on time before his children go to bed.
Unfortunately, the driver hits a pedestrian. The pedestrian is injured, but instead of asking the driver to stop, Martin panics and asks the chauffeur to flee the scene before anyone could see them.
If the chauffeur is arrested for hit and run accident, Martin will also face similar charges because he is the registered owner of the car involved in the crash and he is the one who advised the personal driver the speed off from the accident scene.
Legal Defenses to California VC 20001 and VC 20002
Based on the facts of your case, a reasonable criminal defense attorney has several defenses he or she can adapt to fight the prosecution’s argument. The defenses will, however, depend on the type of charge you are facing. Some of the common legal defenses include:
Your vehicle was the only property damaged, or you are the only person injured
For misdemeanor hit and run charges, your attorney must show that the sole property damaged in the accident was yours. That way, you had no reason to stop. For instance, if you hit a large truck while driving a compact car, the only vehicle that will be damaged is yours. In such a situation, you have no obligation to stop or give information to parties involved since their car is not damaged.
The same will apply for hitting a property other than a vehicle. If you hit someone’s gate or fence while driving, but no damage is caused, then you should not be charged with hit and run causing property damage because you didn’t cause harm to another person’s property.
In the case of felony hit and run, you will not violate Vehicle Code 20001 if you are the single person injured in the crash. As per this code, the driver who caused the accident is only obligated to perform the required duties if another individual is injured. If the driver who led to the crash is the only party injured, then VC 20001 has not been violated.
Leaving the scene or failure to share your information upon request was not willful
This legal defense applies mostly to cases of hit and run accidents causing injuries or death. The majority of the time, if you hit a pedestrian while driving and either they are seriously injured or dead, staying at the scene of the accident is a considerable risk. The angry mob that forms at such scenes might be looking for revenge. In such situations, the best move is fleeing the scene.
When using this defense, your attorney can claim that the scene was unsafe and provide evidence to show that you did not flee the scene willfully. The prosecution’s case will be weakened by such evidence leading to a reduction or dismissal of the charges.
Lack of knowledge
You cannot be charged with committing a crime that you aren’t aware happened. The same case applies for hit and run; if you had no knowledge you were involved in an accident, then you aren’t answerable to such a crime. Also, if you had no probable reason to believe someone had been injured or died and property damaged, you cannot be found guilty of violating Vehicle Code 20001 and 20002 respectively.
Some of the arguments your criminal defense lawyer can use in a felony hit and run include:
- Your vehicle was not involved in an actual collision
Remember that the prosecution needs to prove that you were involved in an accident. Involvement in an accident can be direct or indirect. If you cause other people to collide, you have been involved in a crash, although not directly. In such a situation where you caused others to hit, you might leave the scene without necessarily knowing you were involved.
- You were driving a large SUV or truck, and when you reversed, you hit a compact car
When you hit a small vehicle from the back with a large SUV, you might not realize if an accident occurred hence driving away even if the person inside the compact car was injured. By using this argument, your attorney can still prove that you lacked knowledge about the accident.
- You were in an accident but had no reason to know you were in one
Lack of knowledge defense will apply in situations where you were involved in an accident, but you were not injured. Also, if the occupants of the car crashed said they were not harmed before you left the scene without identifying yourself and giving information the defense will hold. In such a situation, a lack of knowledge is used to reduce the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor hit and run.
For misdemeanor hit and run, your attorney can claim that you hit someone’s property, but the damage was not significant, so you failed to notice. Also, if you were driving a large SUV and backed on a small vehicle, then the charges might be reduced or dismissed because you didn’t realize you hit something. The defense will also apply on hit and run involving animals.
It wasn’t you
It is a common defense that applies in both felony and misdemeanor hit and run crimes. In VC 20002 & 20001 cases, the attorney can claim that your car had been stolen or another person accessed it. If there were witnesses who can put you at the crime scene, it would be tough to prove it wasn’t you. During prosecution, the prosecutor must show that the owner of the vehicle was the person driving at the time of the accident. So, if there were no eyewitnesses, this defense can hold in court.
Keep in mind that even if there were no eyewitnesses if you didn’t file a report with the local police department that your car was stolen or another party accessed it, then the defense will not hold in court. It would hold only if the police statement submitted were valid. Filing an invalid police report is an offense and can put you in more trouble. Your attorney must, therefore, use this defense only if you had submitted an accurate statement to the police about a stolen car.
Penalties for Felony Hit and Run
In California, if you are convicted of violating VC 20001, you are likely to face sentencing in two forms. The first sentencing depends on whether you caused simple injuries. The other one depends on whether the accident caused fatalities, permanent or severe harm. Therefore, if you are convicted of felony hit and run, causing minor injuries, the penalties are:
- $1000 to $10,000 fine,
- Serve up to twelve months in jail for a misdemeanor conviction,
- Sixteen, twenty-four or thirty-six months in prison if the charge is increased to a felony,
- 2 points on your DMV record, or
If you are convicted of a hit and run, causing death or permanent body impairment, the penalties are:
- A thousand to ten thousand dollars in fine,
- Also, when the prosecutor lowers the charges after a plea bargain to a misdemeanor, a sentence of three months to twelve months in jail will be served,
- Twenty-four, thirty-six and forty-eight years in prison if you are convicted of felony hit and run,
- Restitution, and
- Two points on your DMV record.
Penalties for Misdemeanor Hit and Run
If you are convicted of violating VC 20002, the penalties you are likely to face upon sentencing include:
- Misdemeanor (informal) probation for thirty-six months,
- Up to 180 days in jail,
- A maximum of one thousand dollars fine coupled with court evaluated penalties,
- Restitution to the victims whose property you damaged,
- Two points on your DMV record.
If you are a first-time offender and there were no aggravating factors in your crime, then you will face misdemeanor hit and run penalties which prevent you from spending a long time behind bars.
If the current charge you are facing is your first offense, and there are no aggravating factors in the misdemeanor hit and run case offense, you might be allowed to take part in a civil compromise. A civil compromise is codified under PC 1377 as a civil lawsuit for money damages. It means that if the court allows you to engage in one after being involved in a hit and run offense causing damage to property, the charges will be dismissed if you complete the payment for the damages caused on the victim’s property.
Hit and Run and Related Offenses
Several offenses are strictly related to hit and run. The crimes can be charged alongside, or with of hit and run. These include:
Driving Under the Influence (DUI)
If at the time the accident occurred, you were impaired by drugs or alcohol; then the prosecution will charge you with hit and run and driving under the influence. Whether you are being charged with misdemeanor or felony hit and run, the DUI charge must also be alongside. Some people will be facing up to three charges because a DUI has two offenses. One is for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and the other is for driving with a BAC level of .08% or higher.
Violating California VC 23152 (a) & 23152 (b) are misdemeanor offenses, especially for first time DUI offenders. The penalties for these convictions include:
- A minimum of four days up to one hundred and eighty days in jail,
- A minimum fine of $390 and a maximum of $1000, and
- 180 to 300 days of driver’s license suspension or restriction.
Facing both hit and run and a DUI charge at once is the worst nightmare because if you are convicted, the penalties might affect the rest of your life. However, with the right attorney who understands the scope of the penalties you will be facing, you are likely to get lighter punishments.
PC 192 (c) defines vehicular manslaughter as causing death to someone else while driving. If the event leading to violation of Vehicle Code 20001 caused death, you will be facing vehicular manslaughter and felony hit and run charges.
The elements the prosecution must prove in vehicular manslaughter include:
- The defendant was driving unlawfully,
- The defendant was driving in a legal but dangerous manner, or
- Knowingly caused an accident for financial gain.
If the prosecutor justifies these elements are accurate and that you fled the scene of the accident without giving information on your identity, then you will be charged under VC 20001 and California PC 192.
For vehicular manslaughter, the penalties will depend on whether the charge is a felony or a misdemeanor. For a felony vehicular manslaughter, the penalties are 365 days in jail, and for a felony, a convict gets to serve twenty-four to one hundred and twenty months in prison.
A combination of felony hit and run and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated can lead to severe sentencing. You might end up serving at most ten years behind bars in state prison.
Driving without a license
You will be facing a charge of driving without a license on top of hit and run if at the time you caused the hit and run accident, your driver’s license was expired. The penalties for violating VC 12500 (a) are six months in jail, coupled with up to $1000.
Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
You violate California hit and run laws if you cause any form of an accident while driving and fail to stop. Hit and run accidents are catastrophic to the victims and even their families. Authorities, therefore, try to ensure that those who caused these accidents face the full force of the law. Despite this, people shouldn’t be wrongly convicted for hit and run. So, if you are being charged with a misdemeanor or felony hit and run, reach out to the Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm for legal counsel at 714-740-7848.