Car accidents usually make people think of civil liability—issues like who will have to pay for the damage and any injuries and whether insurance rates will go up. But, even where no one was negligent, auto collisions can lead to additional, more serious consequences: criminal charges.
A hit-and-run is a crime that has to do with the aftermath of an accident rather than its cause. The typical elements of a hit and run are a driver who was involved in a car crash failing to:
Hit-and-run incidents often involve accidents between moving cars. But a hit and run can also involve a car striking:
WHEN NO ONE IS AROUND
If the incident involves a parked car or other unattended property, it might be difficult to locate and notify the owner. In this situation, many states' laws require the driver to leave a note with contact information and report the incident to law enforcement.
Knowledge. A driver typically has to be aware of a collision in order to be convicted for not stopping, providing identification, or offering help. As you can imagine, ignorance is a tough defense to establish.
Fault. Even drivers who aren't at fault can commit hit and run. Suppose a driver who was obeying all traffic laws hits a jaywalking pedestrian. The driver must stop at the scene, provide identification, and offer aid.
Private Property. Statutes determine what constitutes a hit and run, and some states' statutes say that drivers can be convicted of the crime only if the accident occurred on a public road. Other states' laws aren't as clear. But courts have tended to hold that, if a statute doesn't refer to public roads, drivers can be convicted of hit and run for incidents on private property. (A couple examples of private property are store parking lots and residential driveways.)
Passengers. Under the right circumstances, even someone who wasn't driving at the time of an accident can be convicted of hit and run. For example, a passenger who takes the wheel and drives away from an accident site could be guilty. Even a passenger who successfully persuades the driver to flee the scene of a collision can face criminal charges.
Laws can provide stiff punishment for hit and run, though specific penalties vary from state to state. In most places, prosecutors can charge the offense as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the facts of the case.
A collision that results in death or a serious injury to anyone will typically lead to felony hit-and-run charges. In some states, even a hit-and-run accident that causes significant property damage can mean a felony charge. Typically, though, if no one was injured in the collision, the charge will be a misdemeanor.
Both felony and misdemeanor convictions can result in jail sentences and fines. (Felony convictions can even lead to prison time.) For example, in California, a felony hit-and-run conviction can result in up to four years in prison and a fine of as much as $10,000. A misdemeanor conviction in that state carries the possibility of six months' jail time and a fine of up to $1,000. (Cal. Veh. Code § § 20001, 20002 (2016).)
As mentioned above, car accidents usually involve civil liability. Hit-and-run collisions are no exception. In addition to criminal prosecution, a driver involved in a hit and run could face consequences that include:
For more on these types of penalties, see our article on the consequences of a hit and run. For help with a case you're involved in, including an explanation of the relevant law, consult an experienced lawyer.