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The Legal Implications of a Hit and Run in California

The Legal Implications of a Hit and Run in California

The Legal Implications of a Hit and Run in California

A car accident is always a stressful and upsetting experience. However, fleeing the scene of an accident, known as a "hit and run," can lead to serious legal consequences in California.

If you are arrested for hit and run, a California criminal defense lawyer can explain what constitutes a hit and run, the potential penalties for this offense, and how you can defend against this charge. Consult an attorney immediately to begin working on your defense.

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What Constitutes a Hit and Run in California?

What Constitutes a Hit and Run in California

Under California law, a hit and run crime occurs when a driver is involved in a collision and knowingly leaves the scene without following the legal requirements. The key factors are that the driver was aware an accident occurred involving injury, death, or property damage, and they intentionally fled the scene.

Two separate California Vehicle Code sections define hit and run violations based on whether the incident caused personal injury/death or only property damage:

Hit and Run Causing Injury or Death (California Vehicle Code Section 20001)

This offense takes place when a driver is involved in an accident that causes injury or kills another person and then unlawfully leaves the scene without rendering aid or providing their personal information. For this crime to occur, both causing harm and fleeing must happen.

Hit and Run Causing Property Damage (California Vehicle Code Section 20002)

Even if no injuries occur, it is still a crime for a driver to leave the scene after being involved in an accident that damages someone else's property, such as their:

  • Vehicle
  • Building
  • Fence

The driver has a legal duty to stop, provide identification, and take responsibility.

Both of these hit and run violations are known as "wobbler" offenses in California's legal system. This means that depending on the specific details and severity of the incident, the offense can carry charges either as a misdemeanor or a felony.

Misdemeanor hit and runs generally involve property damage only or less severe injuries. Felony charges are pursued when the accident caused serious bodily harm, exhibited extreme recklessness, or if aggravating factors like DUI are present. The potential punishments differ greatly between misdemeanors and felonies.

To be convicted of a hit and run, the prosecution must prove that:

  • The driver was aware they were involved in an accident
  • That accident caused injury, death, or property damage
  • The driver willfully failed to stop and comply with their legal duties at the scene.

Any accident where the driver remained unaware, or it was a true emergency, may not meet the criteria.

California provides two separate code sections. One is for injuries/deaths, and the other is for property damage. It takes the violation very seriously in either case. Fleeing accident scenes is considered a reckless and irresponsible action that merits criminal charges.

Penalties for Hit and Run in California

The penalties for a hit and run conviction in California depend on whether the incident caused injury/death or only property damage and whether authorities charge it as a misdemeanor or felony.

Hit and Run Causing Injury or Death

  • As a misdemeanor: Up to one year in county jail and fines up to $10,000
  • As a felony: 16 months to three years in state prison and fines up to $10,000

Hit and Run Causing Property Damage Only

  • As a misdemeanor: Up to six months in county jail and fines up to $1,000
  • As a felony: 16 months to three years in state prison and fines up to $10,000

In addition to jail/prison time and fines, a hit and run conviction will result in a driver's license suspension and points added to your driving record. The length of suspension varies based on the details of the case.

Why Fleeing the Scene Is a Bad Idea

Why Fleeing the Scene Is a Bad Idea

Some drivers may feel an urge to flee in the heat of the moment after a car accident. This happens out of panic, fear of getting in trouble, or the belief they can avoid consequences by leaving. However, this impulse to run away almost always backfires, creating more severe legal troubles.

Under California law, fleeing the scene of an accident where injury, death, or property damage occurred is a crime in itself. When you leave without stopping to provide your information or render reasonable assistance, you violate the legal requirements that all drivers must follow after a crash.

What may have started as a simple accident can quickly escalate into criminal hit and run charges by fleeing the scene. These charges carry harsh penalties, like:

  • Jail time
  • Heavy fines
  • License suspension
  • A permanent criminal record.

In contrast, drivers who remain at the scene and cooperate fully with authorities may potentially avoid criminal charges. If they follow the law by exchanging information and providing aid, their actions may be deemed a simple negligence case rather than a willful crime.

There is no upside to fleeing, as it removes doubt that the driver knowingly violated the law. The evidence of a hit and run is extremely clear-cut when a driver flees. It virtually guarantees that authorities will file charges. Staying and cooperating at least allows one to argue the facts and explore defenses.

Additionally, leaving the scene of an injury accident is considered a wrongful abandonment and dereliction of a driver's duty to provide care. Hit and run charges are partly in place to discourage this unethical behavior, which can cost lives when immediate medical attention is needed.

From a legal standpoint, the penalties for a hit and run conviction are far more severe than the consequences for simply staying and taking responsibility after an accident. Fleeing creates additional criminal liability on top of any issues from the original accident. In addition to the civil liability you might face for accident-related injuries, you can face criminal penalties.

Other Factors in Hit and Run Cases

Like any crime, the details of the specific incident play a major role in determining charges and sentencing for a hit and run. Some key factors include:

Whether Injuries Were Caused and the Severity of Those Injuries

One of the primary factors that weigh heavily in hit and run cases is whether the accident resulted in any injuries and how severe those injuries were. Offenses where victims suffer serious bodily harm or loss of life are considered much more obvious.

If no injuries occurred, authorities may treat the incident as a misdemeanor hit and run involving only property damage.

But if victims suffered an injury, especially if the injuries were critical, crippling, or caused permanent disabilities, it increases the likelihood of felony charges.

The more life-threatening the injuries, the harsher the penalties tend to be. Accidents causing paralysis, loss of limbs, traumatic brain injuries, or death can result in multi-year prison terms. Leaving the scene becomes nearly indefensible when victims are left unattended after suffering grave bodily harm.

The Amount of Property Damage Involved

While property damage may seem less impactful than personal injury, the level of damage is still an important factor in hit and run cases. The higher the costs of the property damaged, the more seriously the offense is typically viewed.

A hit and run involving minimal damage, such as scratches or dents, may be pursued as a misdemeanor property damage case on the lower end.

However, high property damage from crashing into vehicles, buildings, street signs, etc., can increase the likelihood of felony charges.

If the damages run into the tens of thousands of dollars, it demonstrates a higher level of recklessness and disregard for others' property. Prosecutors tend to pursue more strict penalties in proportion to the monetary value of the damages caused.

If Drugs/Alcohol Were Involved

If Drugs or Alcohol Were Involved

Driving under the influence is itself a serious offense. If the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident, it significantly exacerbates the severity of a hit and run case. Any level of intoxication makes the violation more willful, reckless, and harder to justify fleeing the scene. It demonstrates a higher degree of blatant disregard for the safety of others on the road.

If drugs or alcohol are involved, they make things worse. They can raise charges from a misdemeanor to a felony if the hit and run occurred while under the influence, and the likelihood of facing penalties such as longer jail sentences and higher fines increases significantly.

The Driver's Driving Record and Criminal History

A driver's background related to prior crashes, tickets, criminal convictions, and other law violations is another consideration in hit and run prosecutions. Those with clean records may have an easier time arguing the offense was a momentary lapse of judgment.

However, drivers with multiple past incidents on their record, especially prior DUIs or other hit and runs, will be viewed as reckless repeat offenders. This pattern of violating laws makes it harder to show the latest offense was just a one-time mistake.

People with major criminal histories beyond just driving violations can also expect harsher treatment. This will happen during charging and sentencing if they are convicted. Their actions portray a continued disregard for the law and public safety.

Whether the Driver Was Eventually Identified

The time it takes to identify and locate the driver who fled the scene also plays a role. If the perpetrator is found quickly after leaving, it may indicate more cooperation once they regain composure after the accident.

In contrast, if there is a lengthy delay of days, weeks, or months before law enforcement tracks down the driver, it demonstrates a continued effort to avoid accountability. This willful attempt to escape justice often results in charges being filed more punitively at the felony level.

Being identified immediately reduces some doubt about the intent behind fleeing. However, the longer a hit and run driver evades identification and capture, the more deliberate it appears, which weakens any potential defenses.

Generally speaking, cases involving more severe injuries, greater property damage, DUI, significant criminal histories, and delays in identifying the driver tend to result in harsher charging and sentencing.

Defenses Against a Hit and Run Charge in California

Defense Against Hit and Run Case

If you are facing a hit and run charge in California, immediately consult a criminal defense attorney. They can begin to build a strong defense to potentially minimize the consequences you face.

One possible defense is mistaken identity. In some cases, the prosecution may have insufficient evidence to prove that you were the driver involved in the hit and run incident. Your attorney can thoroughly investigate the case, interview witnesses, and gather any available surveillance footage to challenge the identification by the alleged victim or eyewitnesses. If there is a lack of reliable evidence linking you to the crime, it may weaken the prosecution's case against you.

Another potential defense is lack of knowledge. You may argue that you were not aware that an accident had occurred or that there was any property damage. This defense can be particularly effective if you can provide evidence that you had no reason to believe you were in an accident, such as a lack of visible damage to your vehicle or complete ignorance of the incident until law enforcement notified you.

Additionally, your defense attorney may argue necessity as a defense. Necessity is a legal principle that allows individuals to commit a criminal act if it is necessary to prevent a greater harm or imminent danger. If you left the scene of an accident to seek emergency medical assistance or to remove yourself from a dangerous situation, your attorney can argue that you had a legitimate reason for leaving and that it was not a willful act to evade responsibility.

Defenses will vary depending on the specific circumstances of your case. You want a professional California criminal defense lawyer to examine the allegations and evidence against you and determine the most appropriate defense strategies for your situation.

Laywer - Tsion-Chudnovsky
Tsion Chudnovsky, California Criminal Defense Attorney

Contact a California Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you or someone you know has been charged with a hit and run or suffered an injury by a hit and run driver, consult an experienced California criminal defense or personal injury attorney right away to protect your rights and understand your legal options.

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