Vehicle accidents happen when you least expect them. That instant moment can change your life and the lives of others forever. What you do right after an accident can save a life and prevent you from facing criminal charges. A hit-and-run situation occurs when you fail to stop after an accident. Some people flee accident scenes because of fear. Others leave because they think someone else is to blame for the accident. California law requires you to stop when in an accident, regardless of the cause. You must help the injured, share your contacts with others, and at least wait until a law enforcement officer dismisses you.

Failing to do so could result in Hit and Run charges, punishable by a lengthy time in jail or prison and a hefty fine. If you face charges for hit-and-run in Los Angeles, it helps to work alongside a competent criminal attorney. The Los Angeles Criminal Attorney will protect your rights and ensure you go through a fair trial. You could enjoy a fair outcome for your case with a proper defense.

Driver Requirements After an Accident

Accidents happen unexpectedly or unintentionally, resulting in damage or injury. Nobody anticipates an accident because it happens even to the most careful person. A road accident can be devastating, leaving behind a trail of destruction. People that sustain injuries in accidents require immediate medical help. If the police are not present when an accident happens, they will need to understand how it occurred when they arrive at the scene. That is why everyone in an accident must stop at the scene, whether you caused the accident or are only a victim.

California law against hit-and-run requires all drivers to stop immediately after an accident. You should stop your car at the closest location to the crash scene. It is best if you chose a place to stop that is safe for you and other motorists and one that will not hinder traffic. Stopping at a crash scene does not mean that you are guilty. Every driver in an accident should stop their car, regardless of its cause. You must stop even when you feel or know that another person caused the accident.

When you stop after an accident, you must:

  • Locate the property or vehicle owner and notify them.
  • Once you locate the other party, give them your name and address. Also, give them your license and car registration if they ask for it.
  • Ensure that the details you give to the other parties contain your current physical address and the name, address, and contact details of the legal owner of the car you were driving.

If the legal owner of that vehicle in the accident is at the scene, they must also give their license and any other identifying information if requested by others in the accident. If the requested information is unavailable, the car's legal owner must provide any other reasonable identification to the parties involved.

If you were in a car accident involving a parked or empty vehicle, or any other property whereby the owner is not within its vicinity, you must:

  • Make a note with your name, address, vehicle registration number, and vehicle owner's name, address, and contact details.
  • Include the circumstances of the crash on the note
  • Leave the note in a conspicuous place on the vehicle or property.

That will enable the vehicle or property owner to contact you.

Once you stop and share contacts and identifying information with other affected parties, you must, with no delay, notify law enforcement within your area about the crash and its probable cause. You can leave if the police department does not respond right away. But if an officer is at the scene, you can only go with the officer's permission.

Your responsibility at the scene as a driver does not depend on the type or gravity of the crash. You are not free to leave the scene if you feel the accident is only minor. You should stop and leave your contact information regardless of the nature or severity of property damage after the accident. For example, if you only ran into a mailbox or gate, you should stop the same way you would if you ran into someone's car or pet. VC 20001 and VC 20002 require you to stop your vehicle and perform your duties as a driver when you hit or damage any property.

Remember that you should fulfill this obligation regardless of who is to blame for the accident. It should not matter how the accident occurred, who was at fault, or who sustained injuries in the accident. Your obligation applies as long as you were in an accident, even if the crash was unavoidable.

If you fail to stop and share your contact information after an accident in which someone else's property was damaged, you will face misdemeanor charges under California VC 20002. If someone sustained injuries in that accident, you would face felony charges under VC 20001. Remember that you could be guilty of fleeing an accident scene even when another person was to blame for the incident.

If someone sustained injuries or lost their life in an accident in which you were involved, you have additional requirements as a driver to:

  • To assist those that suffered injuries
  • To notify law enforcement without any delay

That additional duty pertains to injured people, including those in your car. Thus, if you flee the scene of an accident after causing an injury to someone that was in your car, you are guilty under this law.

Legal Meaning of California Hit and Run

The law covers two types of hit-and-run offenses under different statutes: misdemeanor and felony.

Misdemeanor Charges

The law against misdemeanor charges for fleeing an accident scene is under California VC 20002. You could face criminal charges under this statute if you:

  • Are in a car accident
  • The accident results in property damage, whether private or public property
  • You flee the scene without stopping to leave your contacts and address and informing the police about it

California VC 20002 requires any driver in a car accident with property damage to stop at the nearest possible place to the crash scene. When you stop your vehicle, you must:

  • Find the damaged property's owner.
  • Ask for their name, address, and contact information if the owner is not around.
  • After finding the property owner, give them your identifying information, including your name, address, driver's license, vehicle registration, and any other information they need
  • If the property owner is not at the scene, leave a note in a conspicuous place containing your identifying and contact details and a few details of how the accident happened.
  • If the car you are driving belongs to someone else, provide the name, contact, and address of the vehicle's registered owner.

You are guilty of a misdemeanor for leaving an accident scene if you fail to do all that.

Felony Charges

The law against felony hit and run in California is under VC 20001. You will face criminal charges under this statute if you flee from an accident scene in which a person sustained injuries or died. The law mandates any driver who has been in an accident in which someone lost their lives or suffered injuries to do these:

  • Stop their vehicle at the closest and safest possible location near the crash scene
  • Offer help to the injured, including administering first aid and arranging for transport to the emergency room
  • Exchange their name, address, and contact details with others in the accident
  • If requested, give your license and vehicle registration to the other party, and law enforcement
  • Call the police immediately to report the accident

Failing to do this will result in felony charges regardless of the cause and fault of the crash. If the affected party was traveling in your vehicle, you should provide assistance and contact information to them. Leaving the scene with an injured passenger in your car will also result in felony charges.

In some instances, you can face criminal charges under both statutes if the accident you fled resulted in property damage, injury, or death.

If you face charges for fleeing an accident scene, the prosecutors must prove all the elements of your particular offense beyond reasonable doubt, whether felony or misdemeanor. Here are some of the specific factors the district attorney must focus on:

You Were in an Accident

An essential element of these laws is that you were in an accident. You could not face charges for fleeing an accident scene if you were not in an accident in the first place. Being in an accident as a driver means that your car was somewhat involved in a road accident, meaning that you were driving when the mishap happened. The accident could be minor or major, resulting in property damage, injuries, or loss of life.

You Were Aware of the Accident

The district attorney must also prove that you knew or must have possibly known about the crash. Either you saw the accident happen or felt its impact on your vehicle. For instance, when you hit another car, there is usually a loud bang that you cannot simply ignore. It is not the kind of noise you experience daily while on the road.

If you hit a pedestrian or another vehicle, you can deduce the outcome of the accident from the impact. In that case, you will know if the property or car was damaged or if the person sustained injuries or died.

You Willfully Fled the Accident Scene

A willful act is deliberate or done on purpose. It means you left the scene out of your free will, knowing too well that the accident happened. If you knew that you or someone else had caused an accident and were in it but left the scene, you would be guilty of fleeing from the scene. Remember that a willful act is not accidental. If you flee an accident scene because you are unaware of the accident, you are not guilty under this statute.

Penalties After a Hit-and-Run Sentence

Your punishment under VC 20001 and VC 20002 will depend on the nature of your charges and your criminal history.

Misdemeanor charges attract more lenient penalties than felony charges. But both offenses are severely punished in California.

Misdemeanor charges, which occur when you flee an accident scene in which there were no injuries or death, are punishable by:

  • Six months in jail, or
  • Misdemeanor or summary probation
  •  Court fines not exceeding $1,000

In most cases, the judge sends defendants on probation instead of jail. When that happens to you, you will be under the direct supervision of the court. You must also adhere to strict probation conditions, which could include:

  • Payment of restitution to the property owner
  • Not committing any crime during the probation period
  • Undergoing drug or alcohol treatment if drugs and/or contributed to the commission of the offense
  • Remaining within the court's jurisdiction until the end of probation
  • Providing regular reports to the court regarding your performance during probation

Leaving the scene is not an offense if the accident you were in only damaged your property or vehicle. But, it is best to stop your car and take pictures or videos of the other vehicle or property to prove that no damage happened. If you were in a low-impact accident and unsure whether you damaged anyone's property, it is best to stop your car and share identifying details with the property owner. If the owner reports damage to their property, you are not in trouble for leaving the accident scene.

A felony charge for fleeing an accident scene is a wobbler in California, meaning that the district attorney can prosecute it as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the details of your case.

A misdemeanor charge under VC 20001 is punishable by:

  • One year in jail
  • Court fines ranging from $1000 to $10,000

The judge could send you to summary probation instead of jail time. But remember that you will receive a set of probation conditions as above to abide by.

A felony sentence is punishable by:

  • Four years in prison, or
  • Formal or felony probation
  • Court fines ranging between $1,000 and $10,000

If the judge sends you on felony probation, you will be under the supervision of a probation officer. The officer will ensure that you abide by all probation conditions set by the judge. The officer will also submit regular reports regarding your progress to the court.

If you perform well during probation, you could be eligible for an early probation termination. But if you violate any probation condition, you could face more severe consequences. The judge could hold a probation violation hearing to decide what to do with you for violating your probation. From this hearing, the judge could:

  • Terminate probation and send you to jail or prison for the entire term provided under the law for the underlying offense
  • Continue your probation under the same conditions, but give you a stern warning against further violations
  • Continue probation but under new and stricter probation conditions.

How To Fight Hit and Run Charges in California

A sentence for fleeing an accident scene is life-changing. Other than being sent to jail or prison and paying a court fine, a conviction will leave you with a severe criminal record that will affect many elements of your life, like your career and social life. But, you could avoid a conviction if you fight the charges in court.

The law permits you to hire a criminal defense team for legal representation and defend against your charges. You also have several legal defenses that your defense team can use to compel the judge to reduce or dismiss your criminal charges. The best of these approaches that your defense team can use in your case include:

You Were the Only Injured Party

If you stopped after an accident and confirmed that you were the only one that suffered injuries with no property damage, it is okay to leave the scene to seek medical help. The laws require you to stop, offer help, and exchange information if others were involved in the accident. But if you were the only one involved in that accident, you do not need to stop, especially if you need immediate medical attention.

Only Your Car Was Affected in the Accident

Remember that you can leave a crash scene if only your car was involved and damaged in the crash. But, you must stop to ensure no one else was involved before leaving the scene. If only the car you were driving was affected, you would not face criminal charges under this law, and the judge could drop your charges.

You Did Not Act Willfully

You only face criminal charges if you willfully leave a crash scene after being in an accident. You are not guilty as charged if your actions were not willful. It could be that you were unaware of the accident. You could crash into another vehicle, cyclist, or pedestrian and still not know about it if the traffic is heavy or it is raining heavily. But, your attorney must convince the judge that you would have stopped to help and exchange information had you known about it. The judge can drop your charges if the court accepts your defense.

The Scene Was Unsafe

If you crashed into another vehicle, pedestrian, or cyclist and an angry mob charged toward you, the scene would be unsafe for you to stop to help and exchange information. In that case, you can drive off to the nearest police station to report the matter. If that happened to you, your attorney can convince the judge that stopping at the scene would have compromised your safety. If the jury accepts your defense, the judge can drop your charges.

Also, the scene would have been unsafe if there were no safe places to pull over near the scene. But, you must convince the judge that you stopped the vehicle at the safest place you would find near the crash scene.

Also, stopping could have been unsafe if you rushed someone to an emergency room. If you were in an accident and a sick person in your vehicle needed immediate medical help, it could be okay if you rushed them to the ER and then reported to the scene once they were safely in the hospital.

Mistaken Identity

Sometimes people are mistakenly accused of crimes they have not committed. That could have happened to you because you were driving near the accident scene or were driving a vehicle similar to the one that caused the accident. A surveillance video of the accident scene could be used to verify the actual perpetrator. If you were mistakenly identified, the court would drop your charges.

Someone Else Was Driving Your Vehicle

A vehicle owner whose vehicle fled from a crash scene could face criminal charges under this law if the person driving their vehicle failed to stop the car and perform their duty after an accident. The people at the scene, including the police, will search a vehicle's registration number and go after the vehicle owner in cases like these. If you face criminal charges for someone else's mistake under this law, you could bring it up in court. A surveillance video taken from the accident scene could verify that. The judge can drop your charges and order the police to go after the actual perpetrator.

Find a Qualified Criminal Attorney Near Me

Are you or your loved one facing charges for hit-and-run in Los Angeles?

It could be the most challenging period of your life. But you could talk to us for legal advice, guidance, and support. Our Los Angeles Criminal Attorney team will study your case details to devise the best strategies for a fair conclusion to your case. We handle similar issues daily and, thus, have the skills and experience to compel the judge to reduce or drop your charges. Contact our office at 424-333-0943 to understand our legal services better.