Statute of Limitations for Hit-and-Run Accidents in California

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 What is the Statute of Limitations for Hit-and-Run Accidents in California?

Statutes of limitations apply to both civil and criminal cases. A statute of limitations is a law that imposes a specific time limit on how long a person has to file a particular legal claim. The amount of time prescribed by such a statute will vary by jurisdiction and also by the type of claim being filed. A person who fails to take legal action before a statute of limitations expires, may be barred from bringing their claim. 

The statute of limitations for misdemeanor hit-and-run in California is currently six years. This means that a prosecutor will have up to six years from the date the crime was committed to file charges against a hit-and-run defendant. If the prosecutor fails to charge and file a criminal case against the defendant within that time frame, then they will be barred from doing so. 

Thus, if you have been involved in a misdemeanor hit-and-run accident, a prosecutor will have up to six years to bring charges against you. However, if your hit-and-run accident severely injured or killed another person, you will be charged with a felony. A felony is a type of criminal offense that can lead to serious legal penalties. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you speak to a local criminal law attorney immediately for either offense. 

What Does the New Law State?

The most recent amendment to California’s statute of limitations for a misdemeanor hit-and-run extends the amount of time a prosecutor can file charges from three years to six years. The statute also contains a provision known as the “Discovery Rule”. The Discovery Rule states that the statute of limitations for misdemeanor hit-and-run will begin at the moment the crime is discovered.

For instance, suppose a person drives their car into a lamppost and flees the scene, thereby committing a misdemeanor hit-and-run. Although the incident occurred in October 2020, law enforcement did not discover the crime until October 2021. In applying the Discovery Rule provided in the statute, law enforcement will have until October 2027 (as opposed to October 2026) to file charges. 

Whether a defendant can be charged with a misdemeanor hit-and-run will depend on if their actions correspond with the definition. According to California’s Vehicle Code 20002, a driver who is involved in a motor vehicle accident that causes damages to vehicles and/or other property must immediately stop their own vehicle in a safe location near the site of the accident and provide their contact information to relevant persons. 

Thus, an individual who flees the scene of a car accident that resulted in damage to other vehicles and/or property, refuses to stop their own vehicle near the accident site, and fails to provide their contact information to the other driver or law enforcement can be charged with the crime of misdemeanor hit-and-run. 

In other words, violating the terms of California’s Vehicle Code 20002 will result in committing a misdemeanor offense. One final thing to note about this law is that it specifically tells drivers to move their vehicle to a close, but safe location near the site of the accident. Thus, a driver who does not follow this instruction and ends up obstructing traffic or causing a pile-up, may face additional fines.

How Does the New Law Affect Me?

The latest amendment to California’s statute of limitations for misdemeanor hit-and-runs has created two significant changes. The first is that it gives the prosecutor a lot more time (i.e., three more years’ worth to be exact; six total) to investigate a hit-and-run accident, find the person who committed the offense, and bring charges against them for their actions. 

The second is that it draws a clear line between what sort of hit-and run accident will lead to only misdemeanor charges versus what actions will turn a misdemeanor hit-and-run into a felony offense. For instance, if a motor vehicle accident only causes damage to other vehicles or property, then the prosecutor will only be allowed to file misdemeanor hit-and-run charges against the defendant. 

However, if the motor vehicle accident caused injury or death to another individual, then the prosecutor can charge the defendant with felony hit-and-run. 

While this may seem straight-forward, six years is a long time to file charges. Thus, if an injury develops from the initial hit-and-run accident within this time frame (e.g., latent back and neck injuries), then what originally started off as only a misdemeanor hit-and-run can end up becoming the more serious crime of felony hit-and-run. 

This also means that a defendant will be facing harsher punishments than they would if the crime committed had only resulted in a misdemeanor.

A defendant who is convicted of misdemeanor hit-and-run may have to serve a certain amount of jail time (up to six months), pay a criminal fine of up to $1,000, or do both. In contrast, a defendant who is convicted of felony hit-and-run may be imprisoned for up to four years, can face fines from anywhere between $1,000 to $10,000, or both.

In addition, regardless of what level of hit-and-run offense that a defendant is convicted of, they will still most likely receive an increase in their car insurance rates

Will the Law Affect the Rate of Hit-and-Run Accidents in California?

Although it is too soon to provide conclusive evidence of how the changes in the law will affect the rate of hit-and-accidents in California, speculations can be made. 

As previously mentioned, convictions for both misdemeanors and felonies will appear on a defendant’s criminal record. Given the fact that law enforcement and prosecutors now have up to six years from when a misdemeanor hit-and-run is discovered to file charges, this provides them ample time to investigate and find the person responsible for the crime. Thus, this extension may make drivers think twice before fleeing the scene of an accident. 

Another reason that a longer statute of limitations may deter and therefore lower the rate of hit-and-accidents is because of the legal ramifications. For example, suppose a driver collides with another vehicle and flees the scene. At first, only the person’s car appears to be damaged. By the time the victim reports it, the police find the culprit, and the prosecutor charges them, the victim has now developed back pain in addition to their car damages.

In this scenario, what could have been resolved by exchanging contact information and having an insurance company take care of the damages, is now a felony offense that has to be heard and resolved by a criminal court. 

So, between the newly extended statute of limitations and the fact that technology often aids in capturing vehicle offenses (e.g., traffic cameras, satellite images, etc.), it is more likely than not that a misdemeanor hit-and-run offender will now be caught before time lapses. Based on this information, one could reason that the new changes to the law will potentially have the effect of lowering the rate of hit-and-run accidents in California.  

Seeking Legal Help for a Hit-and-Run in California

As discussed above, it is crucial that you file a California hit-and-run lawsuit before the state statute of limitations expires. Failing to file your claim on time can prevent you from recovering any potential damages that you may be owed. Thus, if you need assistance with filing a hit-and-run lawsuit or have any questions about the newly enacted hit-and-run statute of limitations in California, you should consult a California attorney for further legal advice. 

Alternatively, if you are the defendant in a hit-and-run matter, then you may be able to raise the expiration of a statute of limitations as a defense against the case. A defendant who is facing charges and/or a civil lawsuit for a hit-and-run, should speak to a California traffic violation lawyer as soon as possible. 

An experienced California criminal law attorney will be able to explain how the new regulations may affect the outcome of your case and the potential penalties you may receive. Your lawyer can also answer any questions and/or concerns you may have about your case or the new law, determine whether there are any defenses that you might be able to raise, and provide representation in court or at a plea deal.

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