Car Accidents and Police Reports

What does the police report contain, and how is it used during a car accident settlement or lawsuit?

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by David Goguen, J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Even if you've never been in a car accident, you've probably heard of police reports, though you might not know much about them. A police report is created by a law enforcement officer who responds to the scene of a car accident, and it includes crash-related details, statements from those involved in the accident (and from witnesses), and other key information.

Insurance adjusters and attorneys often give a lot of weight to what's in the police report, especially if the officer's findings indicate that one driver bears most (or all) of the fault for the car accident. So a police report can be a crucial piece of the car insurance claim or car accident lawsuit puzzle. In this article, we'll cover:

  • how to get a copy of the police report after your car accident
  • the kinds of information typically included in a police report
  • the fact-versus-opinion distinction when it comes to the reporting officer's notes, and
  • how police reports can (and can't) be used in a car accident case.

What Is a Car Accident Police Report?

In the context of a car accident case, a police report is a written document that is usually generated at the scene of the crash, typically by the responding law enforcement officer. The police report often contains:

  • details of the crash and the people/vehicles/property involved
  • statements from drivers, passengers, and witnesses
  • a drawn diagram of the accident (location, path of vehicles, point of collision), and
  • in some instances, the officer's findings or conclusions as to how or why the accident might have happened.

How to Get a Copy of a Police Report

As we touched on above, a police report is generated by the investigating officer who responds to a request for assistance at the scene of a car accident. The police report is a summary of information regarding the crash—usually containing facts related to the accident and opinions of the investigating officer.

There are two ways to obtain a police report. One way will cost you money, the other probably won't.

Paying for a Copy of the Police Report After Your Car Accident

To get a paid copy of the police report, you need to make a request from the local law enforcement office that drafted the report. Before leaving the scene of the crash, the investigating officer typically will hand you a receipt with the identification number for the police report. Call the traffic division of the local law enforcement agency that responded to the scene of the car accident, pay the administrative fee (which is usually around $15), and you should have no problem obtaining a copy.

If you don't have or don't know the identification number for the police report, you can provide the date, time, and location of the car accident, along with your name, to assist in locating the report.

Getting a Free Copy of Your Car Accident Police Report

The best way to get a free copy of the police report is to ask the insurance adjuster who's handling your claim if they requested the report, and ask for a copy.

Regardless of how you obtain the police report, it may take a few weeks for the investigating officer to complete the report, and for it to become available.

What's In a Car Accident Police Report?

At the scene of the car accident, if you pay close attention you may notice the investigating officer inspecting vehicles, talking to people, measuring distances, writing notes, and taking photographs. The officer is taking some or all of these steps in preparation for drafting the police report. In short, the police report is a summary of the police officer's investigation of the accident. The report will often contain some or all of the following information:

  • approximate date, time, and location of the collision
  • identifying information for parties involved in the car accident, including names, addresses, phone numbers, and insurance information
  • identifying information for witnesses
  • location of damage to the vehicles involved in the accident
  • weather, roadway, and visibility conditions at the scene
  • diagram of the accident
  • statements from the parties and witnesses
  • citations and/or violations of law, and
  • opinions as to cause of the collision and/or a fault determination.

Facts Versus Opinions In Police Reports

The information contained in the police report can be a fact or an opinion. For example, the date, time, and location of the collision are facts. Fault determinations (i.e. who caused the car accident) are the opinions of the police officer.

Regardless of what's included in the police report, the insurance company, through its own investigation, will come to its own conclusion (also an opinion) as to who was at fault for the accident.

How Do Insurance Companies Use Police Reports?

After a car accident, when a claim is reported, the insurance company will conduct its own investigation. One of the first things an insurance company will ask for is the police report. This is because, as we discussed above, the report contains a vast amount of information pertaining to the car accident.

Sometimes the insurance company and police officer's opinions are different. This is why there are times when the police report is in your favor in terms of a fault determination, but the other driver's insurance company still denies your insurance claim.

Learn more about the role of insurance in a car accident case, and how insurance companies investigate a car accident.

Can a Police Report Sway a Car Accident Case?

Not necessarily. Even if the report includes the responding officer's conclusions about fault, or states that a traffic ticket was issued to one of the drivers, the report isn't a final determination of liability. The report will carry a lot of weight during settlement negotiations with an insurance company, and in any personal injury lawsuit. If you're on the right side of any fault finding, and the officer stated that the other driver caused the accident, the report can be a pretty big asset

But what if the report points the finger squarely at you? The other driver's insurance company may try to use the report to bully you into a quick (and low) settlement. If you find yourself in this position, it may be an uphill battle, but there are ways to challenge what's in the report.

Challenging the Police Report After a Car Accident

Always ask what sort of information the officer received. and from whom. Does the report say that you were travelling 55 miles in a 35 zone just because that's what the other driver said, even though you know that's not true? Was the officer relying on a witness who said the light was red, when that witness may not have been in a position to see the traffic signal?

Another potential avenue of attack is to weigh the officer's training against their findings in the report. Perhaps the best example of this is skid mark analysis. If the report includes estimates of things like vehicle speed and stopping distance based on the location and characteristics of skid marks, make sure the responding officer was properly trained to make such a call. The same concept can be applied to other special measurements and conjectures found in the report. Learn more about what to do if you disagree with the police report after a car accident.

Are Police Reports Admissible In Court?

While police reports are commonly used in car insurance settlement talks, admitting a police report as evidence when you file a car accident lawsuit is not quite as clear cut.

In small claims courts, litigants are usually permitted to use police reports as evidence in their car accident case. You will not be expected to know all the rules of evidence, so judges typically will allow plaintiffs and defendants to use the police report in explaining what happened.

If your car accident case goes to trial in your state's court of general jurisdiction (sometimes called a "superior court" or "circuit court"), you should know that parties in these cases are held to the rules of evidence and must contend with whether the police report falls within the rule against "hearsay" evidence, which keeps out many out-of-court statements—by definition, any assertion made in a police report is a statement that was made out of court.

In some jurisdictions, the police report may fall within the "public records" or "business records" exception for admissibility. In other jurisdictions, different exceptions to the hearsay rule may apply and allow you to admit some or all of the police report as evidence.

Next Steps After a Car Accident

After any kind of car accident, if you decide to make an insurance claim or file a lawsuit, the information contained in the police report can have a big effect on two key issues:

If the police report isn't helpful to your position, or if there are early signs that the other side is digging in for a fight, having an attorney on your side can be critical. Learn more about how a car accident attorney can help, and get tips on finding the right injury lawyer for you and your case.

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