Hit and Run/Leaving the Scene of an Accident
The terms hit and run and leaving the scene of an accident are not necessarily interchangeable. Committing a hit-and-run is a serious crime, but there are sometimes good reasons for leaving the scene of an accident. You should not face charges if you left the scene lawfully.
A criminal defense attorney can help if you face hit-and-run-related charges after a DUI or another type of motor vehicle accident.
Committing a Hit and Run Versus Leaving the Accident Scene
Each state has its own hit-and-run laws, as well as its own set of penalties handed down to those convicted of this crime.
Generally, the definition of a hit-and-run includes:
- Refusing to provide the other driver with your contact information and insurance information
- Not offering assistance (for example calling 911) to injured parties
- Not stopping at the scene after causing an accident
Why might someone commit a hit-and-run?
- Fearing an arrest and conviction for causing the accident
- Being drunk or high
- Being late for an appointment
- Underestimating the damage’s severity
- Not having car insurance (or having less than the minimum amount of insurance required by law)
- Fearing deportation because of their immigration status
Leaving the Accident Scene Is Not Necessarily Illegal
There are valid reasons why a person may need to leave the scene of an accident.
The law often makes allowance for this and will not classify an action as a hit and run if:
- The driver was seriously injured and had to go to the hospital for emergency care.
- Someone else in the driver’s car suffered serious injuries, and the driver was responsible for making sure they got medical attention.
- The driver hit an unoccupied vehicle, made a good-faith effort to locate the owner, and left a note containing their contact information with the damaged car.
- The driver reported the accident in a timely fashion after leaving the scene for the reasons listed above.
- The driver’s vehicle was in the middle of the road, so they drove a short way away until they found a safe spot to park and then returned to the accident scene.
You should not face any consequences if you left the accident scene for these reasons. However, car accidents are often chaotic and traumatizing events.
You may act within the law and with the best of intentions and still end up facing hit-and-run charges due to:
- Confusion on your part, or on the part of another individual (e.g., the responding police officer or the other driver), when reporting the incident
- Lost information for example, maybe you provided your insurance information, but the other driver forgot or misplaced it
- Deliberate misinformation for example, maybe the other driver tries to deflect blame or justify legal action by accusing you of committing a hit and run
Facing any charge can be scary, but do not panic. Rash actions, like leaving the scene of the accident or resisting arrest, could make things worse for you in the long run. A criminal defense attorney can see to it that the law treats you fairly.
Your Rights After an Accident
Whatever your perceived role in the accident whether you are the alleged perpetrator or simply a survivor you have certain rights that the responding police officer must uphold.
These include the right to:
- Not responding to the police officer’s questions
- Talk to a lawyer before answering questions
- Receive medical care
It is important to realize that, while you do have the right to do all of these things, refusing to cooperate with the police may carry its own consequences. Some people may flee the accident scene so they do not have to worry about how they will handle the police or face any consequences at all. Ultimately, this could lead to serious penalties, from jail time to fines.
How to Exercise Your Rights After an Accident
Even if you have nothing to hide, realize that the police are not your friends. Do not speak freely around them without a lawyer present.
Here are some actions you can take to protect yourself if authorities accused you of a hit-and-run:
- If the police try to question you, invoke your right to remain silent until you have contacted your lawyer.
- If the police ask you to take a test, such as a Breathalyzer, you have the right to refuse. Bear in mind that this may come with penalties. Your lawyer can help sort everything out once they arrive at the station or learn about your situation.
- If the police try to search your vehicle, ask them if they have a warrant and if you can see it. If they don’t have one, they cannot search your vehicle.
Consequences of a Hit-and-Run Conviction
While leaving the scene of an accident may seem like an easy solution, the consequences could be far more severe than if you had stayed.
If caught and convicted of a hit and run, you could face:
- Fines: Having to pay out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars could make things very difficult for you and your family.
- Prison time: The more time you have to spend behind bars, the bigger the impact on your career and your relationships with loved ones. After you get out, your life may never be the same.
- Parole: After prison, the law may continue to control and restrict your movements. Even a small violation could get you into further trouble.
- Restitution: While you pay a fine to the government, restitution goes to the survivors of the accident you allegedly caused. The more serious the survivors’ injuries, the more the court could make you pay.
- License suspension: As with many vehicular crimes, a hit-and-run conviction could prompt a judge to ban you from driving for weeks, months, or longer.
How serious are these penalties?
They depend on:
- Your prior convictions: Have you previously been convicted of traffic crimes, like driving under the influence or committing a hit and run? The more prior convictions you have, the more severe the penalties of another conviction.
- The seriousness of the accident: Very serious accidents, like if the other driver’s car was totaled, may warrant harsher penalties than more minor accidents.
- The seriousness of the injuries: A judge may also take into account the types of injuries that resulted from the accident. Fatal injuries will, of course, bring the most onerous punishment.
Penalties like fines and prison time could prevent you from ever again living the kind of life you want.
The conviction could:
- Convince certain employers not to hire you or certain schools not to accept you
- Sever or damage your relationships with people you love
- Cause debilitating and ongoing financial distress, if you must pay fines despite being unable to find work
- Affect your reputation, social standing, and mental health
- Make it much harder for you to get to work, take care of your children, or fulfill other responsibilities
Defending Yourself Against Hit and Run Charges
You may understandably feel overwhelmed and afraid after the authorities charge you with a hit and run and/or other vehicular crimes.
It may help to remember that:
- You have rights: No matter what the police may say or accuse you of, you can legally refuse to answer their questions and stop them from searching your vehicle without a proper warrant.
- You are not alone: You also have the right to legal counsel. When police are present, invoke your right to stay silent and to an attorney’s presence. Requesting legal help is not an admission of fault, and the police shouldn’t perceive it as such.
- You can take action: Hiring a criminal defense attorney could help you navigate the legal system and the charges you face.
A Lawyer Can Defend Your Rights After Evaluating Your Situation
Your lawyer can decide how to defend you once they have a chance to investigate the alleged hit and run.
- Challenge the police’s conclusions: Say the police accuse you of causing the accident while drunk based on the conclusions of a Breathalyzer test. Breathalyzer test results are not always accurate, so your lawyer could motion to dismiss those findings.
- Get a judge to dismiss the charges: In this best-case scenario, your lawyer finds sufficient evidence to prove you are not guilty and/or that the police mistreated you. Without a case, the judge may dismiss the charges.
- Convince the prosecution to offer a deal: Maybe the prosecution, upon seeing the case your lawyer has built, will agree to reduce the charges or offer a plea deal.
Sometimes, the prosecution’s case hinges on one piece of evidence. If your lawyer can have that information disregarded, then the state might not have a valid argument. Your legal team can review this possibility after reviewing your situation.
Fighting Hit and Run Charges Can Be Difficult
The legal system is not always accessible to the average person.
If you try to represent yourself without a lawyer, you would bear sole responsibility for:
- Scheduling court dates and appearing in court on your own behalf
- Negotiating with the prosecution for the best possible deal
- Selecting, filling out, and submitting the right paperwork at the right time
- Following all courtroom rules and procedures whether you are familiar with them or not
- Collecting and presenting enough evidence to introduce doubt to the prosecution’s case
- Objecting if and when the prosecution tries to skirt the rules or infringe on your rights
Very few laypeople can handle these tasks alone. This is especially true if you also face insurmountable stress. Criminal defense attorneys protect their clients by performing all of these tasks on their behalf.
They work directly with clients to:
- Learn as much as they can about the accident and the client’s perception of what happened
- Determine how to fight for their client based on the client’s preferences and the challenges presented by their situation
- Manage all case-related paperwork and communications
- Do everything possible to minimize their client’s suffering
How You Can Help Your Lawyer
Hiring a criminal defense attorney is an important step, but you still have a vital role to play in your own defense.
You should prepare to:
- Be honest with your lawyer: Unlike the police, your attorney is on your side. Always provide open, honest answers to their questions, even if you think those answers make you look bad.
- Provide evidence to your lawyer: If you have materials relevant to the case, such as photographs, give them to your attorney. Also, if you provided a statement to the police, make sure your lawyer knows so they can add it to your case file.
- Make decisions: This is still your case, and your future is on the line. Your lawyer can explain your options and help you make informed decisions about your future.
- Ask questions: If, at any time, you feel confused about what is happening or what your lawyer says, speak up immediately. Your lawyer has a responsibility to make sure you are well-informed and can act in your own best interest.
How Do Hit and Run Cases End?
Your case may end with:
- A court convicting you of the charges as they now stand or of reduced charges your lawyer negotiates for you
- A court finding you innocent of some or all charges
- A judge dismissing your case due to police misconduct or a lack of evidence
- You pleading guilty and accepting reduced charges as part of a plea deal
No lawyer can guarantee a particular result, but they can demystify the legal process and make sure the legal system treats you with respect.
You Should Consider Your Legal Defense Options as Soon as Possible
If authorities accused you of a hit and run or leaving the scene of an accident, exercise your right to partner with a defense lawyer. The sooner you get legal help, the sooner a lawyer can start defending your rights.
Many Phoenix criminal defense law firms offer no-obligation consultation where clients can ask questions and get answers. You could also benefit from such a meeting as well as comprehensive legal support.