When Does a Hit and Run Become a Felony in California?
For most drivers, being involved in a car accident leads to exchanging insurance information, reporting the incident, and letting the claims process run its course. But for some, the instinct after an accident is to flee the scene as quickly as possible.
While they may have left for good reason – whether it’s fear of the other driver, concerns over personal safety if they pulled over, or other valid worries – leaving the scene of an accident in California comes with serious legal consequences.
So when does a hit-and-run cross the line into felony territory? In this article, we’ll cover the factors that dictate misdemeanor vs felony charges, the specific injuries that lead to felony charges, and the steps you can take if you’re involved in a hit-and-run.
What Constitutes a Hit and Run in California?
Under California Vehicle Code Section 20002, a driver involved in any type of accident resulting in property damage or injury is legally required to immediately stop at the scene. They must then exchange information with the other involved parties and notify the local authorities.
The driver must provide their name, current residence address, vehicle registration number, and current residence address to the other involved parties. Failure to stop and share this information constitutes a hit-and-run offense.
If the other parties are incapacitated, California law requires taking reasonable steps to notify emergency responders at the scene before leaving. Even if the accident seems minor, drivers have an obligation to stop, notify the authorities, and share the legally required information.
Hit-and-run charges can be filed as misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the circumstances of the incident. Factors like injuries, death, property damage, and prior hit-and-run convictions determine how charges are classified.
Leaving the Scene of An Accident is a Crime
Simply leaving the scene of any vehicle accident in California is a criminal offense. According to California Vehicle Code 20001, drivers must stop after an accident involving any property damage or injury.
Those who fail to stop can face the following charges:
- Misdemeanor hit and run – Facing up to 6 months in jail, fines up to $1,000.
- Felony hit and run – Punishable by up to 3 years in prison, fines up to $10,000.
There are a few circumstances that can elevate misdemeanor hit-and-run charges to more serious felony offenses. These include:
- Prior hit-and-run offenses within the past 7 years
- Accidents resulting in serious injuries or death
- Failure to stop after damaging property or injuring livestock
- Tampering with or disposing of vehicles involved in a hit-and-run to conceal evidence
So, while every hit and run in California is illegal, only the most egregious offenses will result in felony charges and harsher punishments.
When a Hit and Run Becomes a Felony
In California, hit-and-run charges are elevated from misdemeanors to felonies when the accident involves another person’s injury or death. The extent of bodily injury then dictates the level of felony charge and punishment that applies.
Under California Vehicle Code Section 20001, a hit and run resulting in death or permanent, serious injury is a felony offense. Depending on specific injuries and circumstances, a driver faces two possible felony charges:
Felony Hit and Run Resulting in Injury (CVC 20001(b)(1))
This charge applies to hit-and-run accidents where victims suffer any kind of physical injury. It can include minor injuries like scrapes and bruises. But more severe injuries can result in imprisonment up to 4 years in state prison and fines up to $10,000.
Felony Hit and Run Resulting in Death (CVC 20001(b)(2))
This is the most serious hit-and-run offense under California law. It applies when an accident victim dies as a result of their injuries, either immediately or sometime later. It carries a potential state prison sentence of 4 to 6 years and fines of up to $10,000.
Injuries That Lead to Felony Charges
Not all injuries that result from a hit-and-run will necessarily lead to felony charges. Minor scrapes, bruises, and complaints of pain often result in misdemeanor charges that carry lighter penalties. According to California courts, the following types of injuries can elevate a hit and run to a felony offense:
- Bone fractures
- Concussions or other head/brain injuries
- Severe lacerations needing stitches or surgery
- Partial or full amputation of body parts
- Permanent disfigurement or scarring
- Loss of use of a limb, hand, foot, or eye
- Severe burns
- Long-term or permanent disabilities
Essentially, any injury requiring extensive medical treatment beyond basic first aid is considered “serious bodily injury.” If you leave the scene of an accident where a victim suffers these injuries, you’ll likely face a felony charge rather than a misdemeanor.
And in accidents involving fatalities, you can be charged with vehicular manslaughter in addition to felony hit and run. Both carry years of potential imprisonment. So, sticking around the scene and cooperating after an injury accident is imperative to avoiding elevated charges.
Defenses Against Felony Hit and Run Charges
Facing criminal charges for a hit-and-run accident can feel scary and overwhelming. But if you’ve been charged with felony hit and run in California, working with an experienced attorney provides ways to challenge the charges. There are a number of legal defenses we commonly use to protect the rights of clients in these cases:
Challenging the prosecution’s evidence
In any criminal case, the burden of proof rests with the prosecution. We can scrutinize the collected evidence to expose flaws and cast doubt on the prosecution’s version of events.
This includes things like ambiguous witness testimony and reports, inconsistencies in evidence collection procedures, issues with forensic evidence, and more. Challenging evidence this way can sometimes lead to acquittals or reduced charges.
Fighting the intent requirements
For a hit-and-run conviction, the prosecution must prove you had knowledge of the accident and then intentionally fled the scene. But sometimes accidents happen in circumstances where you may not have realized an impact occurred. We’ve helped clients fight intent requirements in cases like debris strikes on highways and parking lot accidents with unattended vehicles.
Using exemptions in the law
California’s hit-and-run laws contain some legal exemptions where leaving the scene of an accident is permissible. We explore whether any exemptions apply, like a reasonable necessity to get medical help, lacking knowledge another party was injured, or impaired ability to provide the required information or locate the other driver.
Getting the charges reduced
Even when the evidence clearly shows a hit and run occurred, we’ve still been able to negotiate reduced charges in many cases. Misdemeanor pleas, lesser injury categorizations, and dropped enhancements are possible when we interface with prosecutors and present mitigating circumstances. Any reduction we secure lessens the penalties you face.
Consulting an Experienced Attorney is Crucial
If you’re under investigation or facing charges for a California hit-and-run accident, consulting with an attorney should be your first call. A skilled lawyer understands these complex laws and nuanced defenses that can protect your rights and future.
We customize a strategic defense based on the unique details of your case, get to work protecting your rights and handle interactions with law enforcement and prosecutors on your behalf.
Having experienced counsel makes all the difference in limiting damages from a hit-and-run charge. We know which arguments resonate with judges and prosecutors and when a plea deal or reduction in charges may be on the table. Our sole focus is defending your best interests.
What to Do After a Hit-and-Run Accident
While legal penalties for leaving the scene of an accident are harsh, panic and fear often cause people to flee. But there are right and wrong ways to handle yourself after a hit and run that can impact your charges.
Here are important dos and don’ts when dealing with a hit-and-run accident:
At the scene
- DO pull over, assess the situation, and call 911 if needed.
- DO check on the well-being of any injured parties if safe to do so.
- DO exchange required contact and insurance info with other involved parties.
- DO photograph damage, injuries, location, license plates, etc.
- DO obtain witness contact information.
- DO notify authorities immediately if anyone needs medical assistance.
After leaving the scene
- DO NOT attempt to repair or dispose of any vehicles involved. This can lead to additional felony charges for destroying evidence.
- DO consult an attorney as soon as possible. They’ll advise you of your rights and build a defense strategy.
- DO NOT speak with insurance companies or investigators before consulting counsel. Statements you make can be used against you.
- DO document your recollection of the accident while still fresh. Share details with your attorney that may help your defense.
- DO comply if contacted by police. Be cooperative, but don’t answer questions without your lawyer present.
If you left the scene of an accident in a panic, contacting our firm should be your first call. There are strategic steps we’ll advise you to take. We’ll explain your rights, potential charges, and immediate next steps. These include:
- Discussing events leading up to the accident to build a strong defense
- Reviewing our legal options and strategies to fight the charges
- Helping arrange your voluntary surrender if there’s a warrant issued
- Beginning negotiations with prosecutors regarding potential plea deals or pre-trial diversion
Our goal is to put you in the most favorable position given the circumstances. We help overturn wrongful charges, reduce exaggerated penalties, and take every possible measure to protect your future. But we need to engage as promptly as possible after an incident occurs.
Long-Term Effects of a Felony Hit-and-Run Conviction
Beyond immediate criminal penalties, a felony hit-and-run conviction has consequences that can negatively impact your life for years. Having a felony record can make things like finding work and housing more challenging.
Other long-term effects include:
- Difficulty passing background checks for many employment opportunities
- A potential ban on possessing firearms in California
- Challenges entering certain professional career fields like medicine, education, finance, etc.
- Loss of certain civic privileges like jury duty and voting
- Difficulties traveling internationally to countries that bar convicted felons
- The social stigma surrounding the criminal record
This lasting impact makes vigorously fighting any felony charge imperative. An experienced lawyer understands how to mount an assertive defense to these allegations.
Don’t Go Through This Alone – You Need Strong Legal Guidance By Your Side
Being arrested and facing criminal charges for a hit-and-run accident can make you feel overwhelmed with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty about the future.
You likely have so many pressing questions running through your mind. Will I really go to jail? Will I lose my license forever? How will I support my family? What will my friends and community think? This level of stress can seem unbearable.
But you don’t have to shoulder this burden all alone. The experienced California criminal defense attorneys at Kolacia Law are here to guide you through this difficult time every step of the way.
We know how to build an assertive legal strategy tailored to your unique circumstances.
Don’t leave your future up to chance, and face this challenge alone. Contact our office right away for dedicated legal guidance and a case review.