In criminal law, leaving the scene of an accident can be a misdemeanor or felony charge for the driver of a vehicle. Sometimes called a “hit and run”, these charges are common when an individual hits another vehicle, pedestrian or cyclist while driving and fails to stop immediately after the accident.
A driver may fail to stop after an accident because they were unaware that they caused an accident, were too scared or emotional to stop or left the scene because they did not want to face the consequences of the accident.
Hit and run charges only apply to drivers, not vehicle passengers. There may be exceptions for when it is appropriate to leave the scene of an accident, such as in situations involving the potential for a fire or an explosion at the scene which could lead to further injuries or damages.
A misdemeanor charge for a hit and run is less severe than a felony charge but is still considered a crime. While the exact definition for a misdemeanor charge varies by state, misdemeanor charges typically occur when a person leaves the scene of an accident that resulted only in property damage, such as damage to another car. These types of accidents are common in parking lots, where the driver of a car hits an unoccupied parked vehicle before driving away.
In most states, in order to be charged with a felony hit and run, a person must leave the scene of an accident that resulted in a victim’s injury or death. If the driver of a car hits a pedestrian or bicyclist and does not stop after doing so, they would likely be charged with a felony hit and run.
Felony hit and run charges can also apply to vehicle accidents when the driver or passengers in the other car were injured by a hit and run driver.
The punishments for leaving the scene of an accident vary by state. In most states, a misdemeanor hit and run conviction results in the payment of a fine. There may also be other consequences involved, such as a temporary driver's license suspension or driving course completion requirements.
Felony hit and run punishments are more severe and typically result in expensive fines and jail time especially if a victim suffered serious injuries or death from the accident. Revocation of a driver’s license is also a common punishment in a large number of states. A felony hit and run conviction can also show up on criminal records and background checks, which may make getting a job or finding housing difficult.
Leaving the scene of an accident where property damage or personal injury occurred can also result in a civil lawsuit being filed against you by the victim or the victim’s family. Victims may file a personal injury lawsuit to sue for compensation for their damages and injuries such as medical bills, lost wages, and emotional or mental trauma.
In addition to the potential consequences of jail time, loss of driving privileges, fines, and civil lawsuits, leaving the scene of an accident convictions may lead to more expensive car insurance coverage payments and the inability to find employment as a vehicle driving professional, such as a truck driver, school bus driver, chauffeur or rideshare operator.
It’s important to not leave the scene of an accident, even if only minor damage is involved. The following steps may provide guidance on what to do if you’ve been involved in a vehicle accident:
- Stop your car after an impact and check to see if anyone was injured;
- Call the police to report the accident;
- Wait at the scene until police arrive;
- If you hit another car, you may want to exchange your name, address, and insurance information;
- Take note of any accident witnesses; and
- Report the accident to your car insurance company.
If you hit an unoccupied parked car in a parking lot, you may consider leaving a note on the windshield with your name and contact information; alternatively, you may want to contact the police to document the accident if it appears as though extensive damage was caused.
If you’ve been charged with leaving the scene of an accident, you may be able to defend yourself against the charges. Hit and run charges are serious crimes that can result in expensive fines, jail time, and the loss of driving privileges.
It’s in your best interest to contact a criminal defense attorney if you’ve been charged with a hit and run. An attorney will help you understand your legal rights any defenses that you might have in your specific case.