A hit-and-run is potentially a very serious criminal offense in the state of California; in the most serious situations, a hit-and-run conviction can result in a felony conviction and a four-year state prison sentence (California Vehicle Code section 20001.) At its most extreme, if someone was killed in the accident and the hit-and-run driver was drunk and potentially guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter, a hit-and-run conviction could result in a nine-year prison sentence just by itself (separate and apart from any potential punishment for gross vehicular manslaughter).
But most hit-and-run situations are not so extreme. They often are simply a matter of property damage, i.e. damage to another vehicle. In such cases, where there is no injury to another person, hit-and-run usually results in misdemeanor charges that carry a potential six-month jail sentence, with fines and fees (including penalties and assessments) running into the thousands of dollars (California Vehicle Code section 20002).
Yes, Hit-and-Run Offenses Are Taken Very Seriously by Police and Prosecutors
People fall victim to hit-and-run offenses fairly often (parking lots are especially treacherous turf). You may have walked out to your parked car one day to find it mysteriously damaged, with no note left behind; a lot of people have either had such an experience or else know someone who has. Perhaps you contacted the police and didn’t have any luck getting a response. Perhaps you simply chalked it up to bad luck and didn’t even bother trying to figure out who did it, let alone trying to have that person caught by the police.
The commonness of these kinds of experiences tends to create a very seriously mistaken impression in some people’s minds. Some people have the idea that if they hit another vehicle and drive away without leaving a note, the police probably aren’t even going to bother looking into it. That is simply not the case. These days, the police take hit-and-run offenses very seriously. In fact, hit-and-run crimes have repeatedly been described as an ongoing epidemic in California. Any time something gets referred to as an ‘epidemic’ by lawmakers, you can bet that local police have been ordered to take the issue quite seriously.
People also make the mistake of assuming that if they are actually arrested and formally accused of a hit-and-run (especially if it’s “just” the misdemeanor version of the offense), the prosecution won’t take it too seriously. People sometimes imagine that they will simply be able to pay a fine, pay for the damage to the other vehicle, and then the case will get “dropped” or “just go away.” That is also a dangerous and frequently incorrect assumption.
In light of all of the above, if you or someone you love is either formally accused of a hit-and-run or knows that an accident might have happened and you/your loved one did not stop to provide all of the legally required information (as required in Vehicle Code section 20003 et seq. or Vehicle Code section 20002, depending on the severity of the incident), you undoubtedly have many questions.
It’s very important to get a meaningful, detailed, and confidential consultation if you find yourself potentially facing hit-and-run allegations. Each individual situation is very different and requires careful consideration of the specific facts. There is no straightforward “best” course of action or way to proceed in these circumstances; simply put, there’s no substitute for getting real, direct advice about your exact situation. You are welcome to call our office and get a free, completely confidential consultation.
Frequently Asked Questions
That said, there are a number of frequently asked questions that come up in these situations.
Are there any defenses available to hit-and-run charges?
Absolutely; in fact, of all the varieties of “typical” cases that come across the desk of a criminal defense attorney, hit-and-run cases often present the best opportunity to mount any number of vigorous defenses. The defenses available run the whole gamut, from strictly factual defenses—i.e., the police and prosecution can’t prove all the elements necessary to establish the crime—to affirmative defenses such as the so-called “necessity” defense. This website won’t detail all of the range of defenses that might be considered by a skilled attorney, because doing so only tends to encourage people to try to “figure it out” for themselves, which is never a good idea (that’s like trying to figure out how to treat a serious illness by checking a health website). However, our office does offer completely free and confidential consultations, so please feel free to call to discuss your situation and the potential defenses that might be raised.
Could the police really be looking for me? I think I only scratched the other car.
Short answer: Yes. See above.
Longer answer: If there is any chance of tracking down a hit-and-run, the police will absolutely have someone assigned to work the case. Remember that at the time of a hit-and-run incident, the person alleged to have fled the scene is generally not in his or her best, clearest state of mind. There have been people who called this office confident that they only scratched another car, only to later discover they actually smashed someone’s rear end and tore off a bumper. There have been people who called this office feeling certain they were never seen by anyone, but who were actually recorded on video by multiple bystanders, completely unbeknownst to them. It is simply never a wise idea to assume that the police either can’t identify you as a suspect or won’t be bothered over something you perceive as a “minor” issue.
This leads to two follow up questions: 1) How could the police possibly figure out who did it; and 2) What do I need to do about it?
As to the first question: These days, there are far more tools available to police for tracking down hit-and-run suspects than ever before. First of all, more and more locations, both public and private, are being surveilled by cameras every day. As high-capacity DVR technology has become prevalent, cameras are able to record and then store more video for longer and longer periods. Cameras that work in extremely low light circumstances (i.e., at night, even in what seems like pitch black darkness) are now so common they’re truly the “norm” for security camera systems, and they tend to capture more detail than you would imagine possible. In other words, the days of grainy black-and-white footage kept on VHS tape for a week are long over, and there’s always a chance the incident was captured on camera. Often enough, with a simple check of a license plate (or even a VIN number), the police will be able to identify a suspect.
Beyond that, these days, it seems that nearly everyone walks around with a smartphone capable of quickly recording high-quality video. Consequently, there is always the possibility that witnesses observed the incident without the knowledge of the alleged hit-and-run driver and reported the incident to the police, possibly even providing a video. Finally, there is the possibility that some identifying information was unwittingly left behind at the scene by the alleged hit-and-run driver. Yes, this happens as well in real life, and it happens more often than you’d think: there have even been cases where a detailed impression of an alleged hit-and-run driver’s license plate was made in another vehicle as a result of the accident, ultimately leading to identification of a suspect.
As to the second question: You absolutely need to discuss this with a lawyer immediately, and do nothing else until then. There are circumstances where an experienced criminal defense attorney such as myself will listen to the whole story, ask detailed questions, and decide the best course of action is to do absolutely nothing until further notice. On the other hand, there are circumstances where a good attorney will listen to the whole story and decide that you need a lawyer to take you in to the police station right away, even at that very moment. There is simply no way for a lay person, even the smartest lay person, to make that judgment call on his or her own. No amount of reading about this on the Internet will help make that “what to do next” decision any more clear—there are too many detailed and context-specific factors to consider.