Do I have to provide information after a car accident? Isn’t that self-incrimination?

The Supreme Court has addressed the relationship between the Fifth Amendment and hit-and-run laws.

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State laws regularly require that drivers who collide with unoccupied vehicles or unattended property give information in person or leave a note. (Obviously, you also have to stop if another person was involved in the collision.) Where notes are concerned, laws may require that the motorist provide contact information and a description of what occurred. In addition, the law may require that a driver who has left a note contact law enforcement as soon as reasonably possible. (See Hit and Run Laws and Penalties.)

You might wonder whether these kinds of laws violate the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. After all, don’t they force you to incriminate yourself?

In 1972, the Supreme Court okayed an older version of California’s law regarding hit and run involving property damage. The law required that drivers stop and furnish their names and addresses after involvement in that kind of accident. Although a majority of the Court couldn’t agree on a single justification for ruling that the federal Constitution's privilege against self-incrimination didn’t apply, the Justices mentioned the following:

  • It's not a crime to be involved in an accident, so, making drivers provide their information usually doesn’t incriminate them.
  • California’s law was regulatory, rather than criminal—it applied to the public at large rather than particular suspects.
  • Requiring people to provide such information is like making them file tax returns.

(California v. Byers, 402 U.S. 424 (1971).)

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