Misdemeanor Hit & Run
Besides driving with a suspended license (see Driving With a Suspended License), “hit & run” (Vehicle Code section 20002(a)) is probably the most common driving offense committed by people. To be convicted of this offense, the prosecutor must prove that defendant:
- knew (should’ve known) that he/she was involved in an accident, causing damage, and
- failed to stop and properly exchange information with the victim(owner).
It is no defense to this charge that the defendant was not at fault for causing the accident, however, if the defendant wasn’t even aware that an accident occurred (the contact between the cars was very slight) or, there was no damage to the other person’s car or property, then then the defendant may have a defense to this charge. Unfortunately, as of 2019 in California, a “civil compromise” (see Alternative Solutions & Sentencing discussion) is a strategy that can no longer be used to have the case dismissed.
However, if the damage is slight, or perhaps due to miscommunication between the defendant and another driver, or because of a defendant’s youthful immaturity, an experienced and knowledgeable defense attorney can persuade the prosecutor to reduce the charge to misdemeanor “disturbing the peace’ (Penal Code section 415). Also, and again depending on the circumstances, it might even be possible to persuade the local prosecutor to offer a simple traffic infraction – failure to exchange information (Vehicle Code section 16025), which carries a maximum penalty of a $100.00 fine!
The penalties for misdemeanor hit & run include probation (informal), up to 6 months of custody in the county jail, fines/fees, and restitution to the victim (compensation to the victim). If however, the defendant also caused injuries (“bumps & bruises, or perhaps soft tissue injuries) to the other driver (Vehicle Code section 20001(a)), then depending on the facts and circumstances involved, the penalties may include probation (informal), up to one year of custody in the county jail, fines/fees, and restitution. If the injuries are severe, the “hit & run” may be charged as a felony.
Felony Hit & Run
Felony “hit & run” is very serious because it usually (though not always) assumes that the injuries caused are significant (broken bones, organ damage) or there was a death involved (Vehicle Code section 20001(a) or (b)(2). In such cases, the penalties are elevated significantly, minimum 16 months state prison up to 4 years state prison. The potential defenses to this charge remain the same, as mentioned above, but should they fail to get the felony charge dismissed, then perhaps they can help mitigate the potential penalties.
Whether the “hit & run” is charged as a misdemeanor or felony, there will always be a victim involved, and victims will be upset and angry, while others are understanding and forgiving. How a defense attorney engages or attempts to engage with that victim will be very important to the criminal proceedings. If the attorney respectfully and appropriately contacts the victim and is able to explain a client’s conduct in a meaningful way, it can be especially helpful to resolving the case because the victim may share a willingness/desire for leniency upon the client.