A hit and run crime under California Law is when a driver flees an accident scene which they caused, without first stopping to offer help or exchange the requisite information with the other party involved, a witness, or a law enforcement officer. At Vista Criminal Law Firm, we are prepared to represent our clients in the best way possible in court, to ensure that your rights as a member of the Vista Community are retained. We additionally serve clients in throughout all of North County.

What is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and Felony Hit and Run?

A hit and run is classified into a felony under California Vehicle Code, Section 20001 or a misdemeanor under California Vehicle Code, Section 20002. It is considered a felony if someone other than the driver sustains injuries or is killed in the accident while it’s a misdemeanor if only property is damaged. A misdemeanor is considered a lesser crime as compared to a felony and hence, it attracts lesser penalties if a person is convicted. However, it may attract jail sentences and greater restitution if they have past convictions of hit and run, evading an officer, or they had other multiple violations in the said accident such as driving under the influence. 

It is important to understand that you can also be charged with a felony hit and run if you abruptly left an accident scene where only passengers in your vehicle were injured or died without staying to ensure that the injured parties in your vehicle is taken care of or failed to report the accident to law enforcement.

Please note that in California, Hit and Run laws apply to any accident notwithstanding;

  • The damage caused to property,
  • The graveness of the injuries caused, or

Due to the application of the above laws, there are instances when anyone could find themselves facing hit and run charges despite them having no history with the criminal justice system. For example:

  1. By driving away from a minor collision between vehicles where the other driver was at fault, without exchanging information you could face a misdemeanor hit and run. If you or the other driver suffered injuries, and still drove away you could face felony hit and run charges even if there were minimal damage to the vehicles.
  2. If a driver jumps the light causing a serious accident between other vehicles with the right of way, and they drive away since his car is unscratched from the accident they caused, then they are liable for a misdemeanor hit and run. If there were injuries or fatalities due to the accident caused, then they could face a felony hit and run.

What are the Duties of a Driver Involved in an Accident?

Whether you are driving on a public road, private road or a car parking lot, California law requires you to observe certain obligations should you be involved in an accident resulting in injury, death or property damage. The law requires you to:

  • Stop at the scene of accident or nearest safe location.
  • Trace and inform the owner or person in charge of the damaged vehicle or property.
  • Provide your contact information and personal details of any other of your injured passengers to the other party. This includes names, addresses, and vehicle registration number. If you do not own the subject vehicle, then also include the contact information of the owners. Leave a visible note on the vehicle or property should there be no one present.
  • In case of injury, provide reasonable assistance such as calling the paramedics, transporting the injured to a hospital or arranging for their transport.
  • If there are witnesses around or law enforcement, then provide your driving license and vehicle registration upon request.
  • Contact the local police authority or the Highway Patrol.
  • In California, the law requires you to report the crash to the Department of Motor Vehicles within 10 days of the accident occurrence. This is if there were fatalities, injuries no matter how minor and if the property damage exceeded $1000.

It is of paramount importance to take note of the fact that these requirements are to be observed even if you are not the one who is at fault of the accident. This implies that even if the other driver is fully responsible for the accident or no one is really at fault, you still are obligated by the California vehicle code to stop and observe the above duties.

Assuming the first duty, that is not stopping at the scene of the accident seems to show a total disregard of other people, such as motorists and pedestrians; it could lead the judge and jury to conclude harsh terms for your apparent irresponsibility

If in exceptional instances, the driver or his passengers might not be in the capacity to carry out the above requirements, a representative of the driver should make a written report to the Law Enforcement authorities within 24 hours of the accident.  If there is a police officer at the scene of the accident, they will make a report of the accident and thus, no need of a separate report.

What are the Penalties for a Hit and Run in California? 

Penalties for a hit and run vary depending on whether you are convicted for a misdemeanor or felony hit and run. In a Misdemeanor, where only property was damaged, you can face up to $1000 in court fines plus other court appraised penalties, up to 3 years of informal probation, up to 6 months in county jail, restitution to the owners whose property you damaged and 2 points added on your driving record according to the California Department for Motor Vehicles.

Remember, if you are a first-time offender, you might not face any possible jail time, especially if there were no aggravating situations such as driving under the influence (DUI).  Under such circumstances, you may be allowed to reach a Civil Compromise, which is a situation where you settle a dispute by mutual concession with the parties involved. It involves compensating the victim for injuries sustained in the accident or damages to property.

This law is under the California Penal Code 1377, and in such, your criminal charges for misdemeanor hit and run are dismissed once you fully recompense the victim.

A felony hit and run in California is known as a ‘wobbler’ which implies that it is at the prosecutor’s discretion to charge you with a misdemeanor or felony hit and run. This is usually influenced by the defendant’s criminal records and specific characteristics of the case.

The California Vehicle Code 20001 VC regards a felony hit and run in two different ways, depending on the extent of the injuries as a result of the accident. One sentencing scheme is for minor injuries while the other is for serious injuries resulting in permanent disabilities or death.

If convicted with a felony hit and run resulting in minor injuries, you could face a penalty of $1,000 to $10,000 in fines, 1 year in a county jail if the crime is reduced to a misdemeanor by the prosecutor, 16 months or 2 years to 3 years in a state prison if the offense is charged as a felony. The charges may also include restitution to the victim and 2 points on your driving record.

If you are found guilty of a felony hit and run resulting in death or permanent disability, you may face between $1,000 to $10,000 in court fines, a minimum of 90 days to a maximum of 1 year in a county jail. If the prosecutor chooses to charge you with a felony, you can face up to 4 years in a California State Prison if convicted, along with restitution to the hurt parties and 2 points on your driving record.

What a Prosecutor Must Prove for a Hit and Run Conviction?

Under the California Vehicle Code 20001 and 20002, a prosecutor must prove to the court the following aspects of crime in order to obtain a conviction for a hit and run. First, that you were involved in the said accident. Here, ‘involved’ implies that you were rationally connected to the accident, you do not need to have made contact with any other vehicle, but your driving contributed to the accident. Secondly, that as a result of the accident there was damage to another person’s property and/or injury or death of another person.

Thirdly, that in a fair and sensible way, you knew an accident had occurred, which resulted in property damage as is with misdemeanor hit and run or in injury or fatalities as is with a felony hit and run. It will be presumed that you knew about the accident if, at any one time, you made utterances that pointed out that you knew an accident had occurred. If this is verified, then the court will decide whether, at the bare minimum, you knew from the severity of the accident that injuries, fatalities or property damage had occurred as a result.

Your knowledge of the accident may also be assumed if your car was damaged in the incident and the damage was consistent with that of other vehicles or property at the scene.

Lastly, that you willfully failed to perform any one of the duties of a driver involved in an accident that is, stopping at the scene of the accident to exchange relevant information with the other involved parties, assisting the injured to get medical attention and reporting the crime to the California Highway Patrol. ‘Willfully’ here indicates intent and not malice. The jury has to make a unanimous decision on which responsibilities you failed to fulfill as a driver after an accident. It could be surprising that lawfully, even if you perform some of the duties or responsibilities of a driver involved in an accident but not all, you are still liable for a hit and run charge.

Please note that if you are the owner of a vehicle, not necessarily the one driving but a passenger, and you influence your driver to violate this statute, then you and the driver are liable for prosecution for a hit and run, per people V. Madison. The prosecutor needs to link any deaths as a result of the accident to the said accident, beyond any reasonable doubt before the jury votes guilty whether it was your fault or not.

What are the Possible Legal Defenses That Are Available for a Hit and Run Charge?

A hit and run charge is a serious crime and those facing it will need the help of an attorney to enable them to present certain defenses in a court of law. Given the grave impact this charge can have on your life, such as jail time, huge financial responsibilities and even loss of employment, it is beneficial for you to present your defense in an articulate manner to allow you get a favorable ruling. Therefore, it is crucial to have an attorney who will be able present the facts of your case in a thoughtful and logical way.

1)  A defendant in a misdemeanor hit and run case could try and argue that only their vehicle was damaged in the accident. This is because there is no obligation in law that requires them to stop if no damage was caused to the other party’s vehicle or property. For instance, you could be driving on a slippery road and you hit a steel sign post, damaging your vehicle. If the signpost remains intact, then you are not bound to stop under the California laws. Please bear in mind that this applies to a misdemeanor hit and run only.

2)  A defense lawyer may prove to the court that their client was not aware that an accident had occurred. This can apply to both a misdemeanor and a felony hit and run. For example, if you were driving at night you could hit a dog which runs off and you didn’t notice, or, a driver in a huge sports utility vehicle could have backed into a mini compact car which results in heavy damage to the smaller vehicle but insignificant damages to his vehicle such that they drive off without noticing the damage they’ve caused.

3)  A prosecutor has to prove that in certainty, you were the driver of the vehicle at the time of the accident. In light of this, you could argue the opposite, if, you had either leased your vehicle or someone had borrowed it. This must be backed by evidence. Your vehicle could also have been stolen, and if you had filled a police report to back this up, the better. However, do not try to file a false claim with the police, especially to cover up another infraction. This defense will only be possible if there are no eyewitness accounts to prove to the court otherwise.

4)  At times, it would be difficult to stop at an accident scene due to security reasons. For instance, you knocked a pedestrian down and an angry mob could be gathering at the accident scene, hindering the driver from performing their legal duties. In such a case they would have to drive on to a safe area to report the accident. Another instance is when an accident occurs on the freeway where vehicles are dangerously too fast to allow you to stop, get out of the vehicle and provide contact information to the other parties involved or the highway patrol. This requires you to seek a safer stopping zone and make a report to the authorities. If you made efforts to comply with the laws such as reporting the accident to law enforcement once you reached a safe zone, then a California hit and run attorney could possibly get your case reduced or dismissed.

5)  A felony hit and run charge would possibly not be charged if your defense is able to prove that you were the only one injured in an accident. Even so, a misdemeanor hit and run charge could still be on your record depending on the characteristics of the accident. That is if there was damage to property or other vehicles in the vicinity of the accident but no one was injured except you. 

6)  A California criminal defense attorney might be able to utilize the California Penal Code 1377 PC to your favor which, as earlier stated, allows a defendant and a plaintiff to reach a civil compromise where a civil remedy is available in a misdemeanor case and if financial compensation is available for injuries or damage to property. If there are no aggravated circumstances such as drunk driving, then the misdemeanor hit and run case can be dismissed once the plaintiff is compensated. The civil compromise saves you, the driver from facing the severe impact of the hit and run charges such as fines and points on your driving records.

Find a Vista Criminal Attorney Specializing in Hit and Run Cases Near Me

At Vista Criminal Attorney Law Firm, we strive to give our clients peace of mind as we guide them through the intricate details of a hit and run case. As you might have noted, these charges have grave consequences not only on you but your loved ones as well. If you hire our firm, you need to know that we will be on your side to fight to regain your freedom. Our team of experienced lawyers has mastered the art of criminal defense and can construct a well thought out defense for you. Please call our criminal lawyer at 760-691-1551 and let us walk with you to a successful outcome.