If you’re involved in a car accident in San Diego County, it can be a confusing, stressful and chaotic experience. It’s not surprising that many people panic and flee the scene. However, California law requires drivers involved in accidents resulting in property damage or injury to stop, exchange information and render assistance. If you commit hit and run in California, you can be convicted of a felony if someone is injured or a misdemeanor if the accident results in only property damage.

If you’re charged with hit and run or reckless driving, do not discuss the situation with the police or prosecutors. I worked for years as a prosecutor, so I know how damaging this can be to your case. Instead, assert your right to a lawyer and decline to answer questions.

Below is what you need to know about the charges, the defense strategies available to you and the potential consequences of conviction.

Hit and Run

There are two types of hit-and-run criminal charges under California law. If a hit and run results in injury to anyone other than the driver who leaves the scene, it is considered felony hit and run under Vehicle Code Section 20001. A hit and run that only results in property damage is considered misdemeanor hit and run under Vehicle Code Section 20002.

Felony Hit and Run

California law imposes specific duties upon a driver involved in an accident that results in injury, including:

  • Immediately stopping your vehicle at the scene of the accident
  • Providing “reasonable assistance” to anyone who is injured at the accident scene
  • Exchanging certain information, including your name, address, vehicle registration number and the name and address of the owner of the vehicle
  • Promptly notifying either CHP or the local police department if someone is killed in the accident

If you fail to perform any of these duties when you are involved in a car crash, you may be charged with felony hit and run. The law imposes a specific duty to determine what type of assistance the injury victim needs and to provide that assistance. This may include securing medical assistance or transporting or arranging for the transport of the injured accident victim to a hospital for medical care.

Even if others in the area are capable of rendering aid, this does not relieve a driver’s obligation to provide reasonable assistance. It doesn’t matter if you’re at fault—the duties required by law apply regardless. Your obligation to render reasonable assistance also applies to passengers in either vehicle, pedestrians or anyone else injured.

If you panic at the scene of an accident and drive away, the sooner you act and rectify your actions, the greater your ability to mitigate the potential consequences. If you leave the scene but quickly realize your mistake, you should return immediately to the scene, render aid and exchange the required information. These actions may mitigate your charges or penalties in a subsequent hit-and-run prosecution. There may even be legitimate reasons that you didn’t stop. For example, you may have a legitimate fear for your safety because occupants of the other vehicle are angry and threatening. If this is the case, immediately call 911, summon aid and report the accident immediately by driving to the nearest police station or CHP patrol station.

Misdemeanor Hit and Run

A conviction for misdemeanor hit and run requires the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were in an accident and knew or should have known that there was property damage. Whether you should have known that there was property damage typically depends on the seriousness of the collision. Misdemeanor hit and run is slightly different from the felony charge because the prosecutor must show that you failed to perform all of the duties required following an accident, while felony hit and run only requires the prosecutor to establish that you failed to perform one of the listed duties.

Consequences of Conviction

A number of factors determine the penalties for felony hit and run. If the injury victim suffered only minor injuries, you may receive a probationary sentence with no jail time, but you could be incarcerated for up to three years in state prison. The sentence for an accident in which the victim suffers severe, permanent injury may range from a minimum of 90 days in jail up to a four-year term in state prison.

Key factors determining the severity of the sentence, beyond the severity of the victim’s injuries, include:

  • DUI/DWI by the driver who fled
  • The number of injury victims
  • Any efforts to obtain aid, including calling 911
  • Whether reckless driving was involved
  • Whether a driver comes forward and takes responsibility
  • Driving history and criminal record

Hit and Run Defense Strategies

Hit-and-run charges under Vehicle Code Sections 20001 and 20002 are very serious and can substantially impair your future. As a former prosecutor who handled many vehicle accident-related cases, including hit and run involving property damage and bodily injury, reckless driving, DUI/DWI and vehicular manslaughter, I got an inside look at how the other side works and know what defense strategies will work against them.

Here’s how I approach these cases. First, I may attack the sufficiency or reliability of the evidence supporting the prosecutor’s case, police misconduct during the investigation, or violations of your constitutional and statutory rights during the investigation. Other successful defenses I may employ include:

  • No Applicable Property Damage: If the only damage that occurs in the accident is damage to your own vehicle, this will not support a charge of hit and run. The only damage that requires you to stop and exchange information is damage to others’ property, which may be vehicle damage or other property damage to residential or commercial properties in the vicinity.
  • No Knowledge of Accident or Property Damage/Injury: If you’re not aware that you were in a car accident, this may be a valid defense. An example of this might include a driver in an SUV bumping into a small economy car. Because of the size difference between the vehicles, you may be unaware that you were even involved in a collision. As another example, you may have caused another car to swerve into a vehicle, but your vehicle was not part of the collision. This type of defense is most effective where there is only minor property damage, which makes it more likely that you did not realize an accident had occurred. Alternatively, you may not have been aware that anyone was injured or that there was any property damage. For example, the other driver may tell you no one was hurt, but it may later turn out that a passenger in the other driver’s car was injured.
  • Stolen/Borrowed Car: This defense is based on the notion that someone else was driving your car or that your car was stolen. If your car was stolen and you filed a police report, this may be a valid defense. Similarly, if someone else was driving your car, you cannot be convicted of hit and run unless you were a passenger in the vehicle when it fled the scene.

Reckless Driving

If you were engaged in certain types of unsafe driving practices, the penalties incurred for hit and run can be increased substantially. For example, reckless driving, which involves “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property” (defined under Vehicle Code Section 23103), will lead to more severe penalties. Reckless driving includes driving at high rates of speed, tailgating, drag racing, and swerving or weaving in and out of traffic.

Reckless driving itself is a misdemeanor offense as opposed to an infraction. This means that a conviction will result in a criminal record and possible jail time. If you are convicted of reckless driving, you may face up to six months in county jail and/or fines up to a maximum of $1,000.

My typical approach in these cases is to persuade the prosecutor to reduce these charges to an infraction or dismiss them entirely.