What are my options if I have been charged with leaving the scene of an accident?
UPDATED: February 6, 2020
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Commonly referred to as a "hit and run", leaving the scene of an accident without leaving your contact or insurance information can result in a minor fender bender being escalated from a traffic ticket to a felony level offense. Each state has a vested policy interest in protecting its roadways and drivers. Most states require individuals involved in an accident to provide certain personal and insurance information at the scene. The consequences for leaving the scene without providing this information vary in nature depending on the state you live in, the degree of injury suffered by others, or the amount of damage caused to personal property.
For example, Pennsylvania's motor vehicle code treats accidents involving unattended vehicles (ones without a driver or occupants) as the least serious. A driver who leaves the scene of an accident involving damage to an unoccupied car without providing the required information can be charged with a summary offense. If convicted, the offender may receive a fine of up to $300, or a jail sentence of up to 90 days. The offender will also be assessed four points against his or her driving record.
The level of punishment escalates to a more serious offense when the other vehicle is occupied. Punishment ranges vary by state and the extent of injury. Typically, minor accidents with minimal property damage will result in lesser misdemeanor punishments. Remember, however, that some states classify this offense as a felony, regardless of the damage because they want to enforce their strong policy interest in compliance. Misdemeanor punishments usually include the payment of a fine, restitution, court costs, and jail time. Even though the offense arises out of a traffic violation, it is still considered criminal conviction with long-term consequences on your finances and reputation. Felony convictions have even more extensive consequences.
Hit and runs which involve personal injury or death tend to receive higher levels of punishment. In Pennsylvania, for example, when the victim suffers bodily injury, the offender can be convicted of a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison. When the victim suffers seriousbodily injury, a convicted offender can be charged with a third degree felony, which carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 90 days, a maximum sentence of up to seven years, and a minimum fine of $2,500. If the victim dies, the offense is still a third degree felony, but the mandatory minimum sentence is one year. A conviction for any of these offenses could also result in a suspension of your driver's license.
You may have a reasonable explanation for leaving the scene. Regardless, some states consider flight as evidence of guilt of other crimes. The argument is that if you didn't have anything to hide, then why did you run? Leaving the scene without providing information can be used to bolster another case against you. For example, if evidence is later developed that you had a "couple of beers" before the accident, it may be argued that you ran to avoid alcohol detection. If a prosecutor learns that you previously had a grudge against the person in the other car, your charge could be changed to an "intentional conduct" charge like aggravated assault, which carries an even higher level of punishment. The bottom line is that no one likes getting a traffic ticket, but having your insurance rates potentially increase is far better than defending long-term criminal consequences.
Even though every state has its own unique set of laws, the basic idea is stop and exchange insurance and contact information. At that point in time, the charge on your record will probably remain a traffic level offense assuming you are at fault for the accident. Leaving the scene only compounds your liability civilly and criminally.
If you have been charged with leaving the scene of an accident, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer or traffic attorney who is well-versed in the laws of your state. They can help you arrange an appropriate time, place, and manner to get your explanation heard. They can also review the facts of your case and advise you of the defenses and options applicable to your situation. Options can include trial and plea negotiation. Getting ahead of your situation, instead of running from it again, can help you obtain a far more favorable result in the form of a better plea bargain. Whatever the case, you should take your situation seriously and consult with competent legal counsel.