Car Accidents and Police Reports

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

Even if you’ve never been in a car accident, you’ve probably heard of police reports. But, do you know what these reports are? How you get a copy? Why the insurance company cares? And, whether police reports are admissible in court? Read on for the answers to these questions and more.

What Is a Police Report?

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 motor vehicle collision -- containing both facts related to the accident, and opinions of the investigating officer.

Getting the Police Report

There are two ways to obtain a police report. One way will cost you money, the other probably will not. To obtain a paid copy of the police report, you need to request a copy from the local law enforcement office that drafted the report. Before leaving the scene of the incident, 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 do not have or do not 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.

To obtain a free copy of the police report, you can ask the claims representative for your own insurance company to see if they requested the report, and ask the representative for a copy. The insurance company may not always have the police report, but if they do it will save you some money. 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.

Contents of a Police Report

At the scene of the incident, if you pay close attention you may notice the investigating officer conducting a number of tasks: inspecting vehicles, talking to people, measuring distances, writing notes, and taking photographs. The officer is completing some or all of these tasks in order to gather necessary information for later drafting the police report. In short, the police report is a summary of the police officer's investigation of the accident. The police 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 lighting 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

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 collision) are the opinions of the police officer.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. The insurance company, through its own investigation, will come to their own conclusion (opinion) as to who is at fault.

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.

Insurance Companies

After a car accident, when a claim is reported the insurance company will conduct its own investigation. One of the first things that an insurance company will ask for is the police report. This is because, as we discussed in the “Contents of a Police Report” section above, the report contains a vast amount of information pertaining to the car accident, and is therefore a valuable resource for further investigation. Learn more about Car Accidents and Car Insurance.

Admissibility in Court

While police reports are commonly used in settlement negotiations, admitting a police report as evidence in 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.

Learn more about Proving Fault for a Car Accident.

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