Since automobiles first hit the road, states have developed a range of laws about driving. Driving a car is considered a legal privilege, not a right. As part of that privilege, state laws impose both limitations and duties on drivers whenever they get behind the wheel.
One of these duties is the duty to stop and help when you've been involved in a car crash or accident. While each state's “stop and render aid” law differs slightly, almost all states impose a legal duty on drivers to stop, identify themselves, or provide assistance whenever they're involved in a car crash.
Assistance laws are sometimes referred to as “hit and run” laws because they are designed to prevent people from leaving an accident scene. Being involved in a car accident doesn't always mean that someone acted illegally or committed a crime. However, any accident can result in criminal charges if a driver chooses not to stop, identify, or provide help. It's not the accident that creates the crime, it's the driver's actions afterward that do.
Here are some of the common responsibilities that states impose.
Stop After Accidents or Crashes
State stop and assist laws sometimes require drivers to assist after “accidents.” However, these laws apply whenever a driver is involved in any type of crash, collision, accident, intentional act, or any event that results in damage or injury, not just accidents.
Stop When You Know--Or Should Have Known--Of the Accident
Some states require that a driver must stop, identify, and help if the driver is aware of the damage or injury. Drivers have a duty to stop even if it is only a minor accident; the extent of the damage or severity of injuries is not relevant.
Drivers may not be able excuse their failure to stop by saying that they did not know they were involved in an accident or other type of collision. If a reasonable driver in the same circumstances would have been aware of the accident, that's enough to trigger the requirement to stop.
State laws require that drivers involved in accidents provide their identification to one another. Drivers have a duty to provide personal identification, as well as information about their automobile insurance. However, drivers are not required to talk about the circumstances surrounding the accident, either to one another or to the police. If a driver is involved in an accident where the other car is unoccupied, the driver must either try to find the owner of the unoccupied car or leave the required identification information in a conspicuous place so the vehicle's owner can find it.
State laws commonly require drivers involved in crashes to stop and help whenever possible. These laws impose a duty for drivers to render reasonable or necessary assistance. What counts as “reasonable” assistance differs from case to case, and depends on the circumstances surrounding the accident. However, drivers are not required to risk their own safety or perform actions that might expose the driver to unreasonable risk.
While drivers involved in accidents have a duty to stop and help, passengers do not share this responsibility. However, a passenger can be found guilty of failing to stop and render aid if the passenger urges, convinces, or persuades the driver to flee the scene. If the driver is later found guilty of failing to render assistance, a passenger who urged the driver to leave can also be found guilty.
Failing to stop and render aid can be a very serious offense. States punish the offense as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the situation surrounding the accident. The difference usually depends on whether anyone involved in the accident died or suffered an injury. If no one was hurt, the crime is usually charged as a misdemeanor.
- Prison. Prison or jail time is possible with hit and run crimes, especially in those that result in serious injury, property damage, or death. A misdemeanor conviction can result in up to a year in jail, while felony convictions can result in a 10 year prison sentence, or longer.
- Fines. Fines with failing to render assistance convictions can be very high. Misdemeanor fines can be as much as $1,000, and sometimes more, while felony fines can exceed $10,000.
- Restitution. A person who causes damage in a hit and run may be ordered to pay restitution if convicted. Restitution payments are designed to repay the other driver for damage, and are counted separately from any fines.
- Probation. Instead of, or along with, jail or fines, a judge can order a probation sentence for a failing to render aid. Probation typically lasts at least 12 months, but can be as long at 2 years or more. If you're on probation you have to comply with specific court orders, such as regularly meeting with a probation officer and maintaining auto insurance.
- Driving privileges. Driving a car is considered a legal privilege, not a legal right. Accordingly, states can limit or take away a driver's license. Unlike the criminal punishment, driving privileges are taken away by the state government agency that regulates motor vehicles and drivers, not by a criminal court judge.
- Insurance premiums. Though the courts do not choose how much a driver pays for car insurance, a driver's insurance premiums typically go higher if the driver is convicted of a hit and run. An insurance company may also decline to provide coverage to a driver convicted of failing to stop and render aid.
Talk to a Lawyer
A conviction for failure to stop and render aid is a potentially serious charge, one that requires the advice of an experienced criminal law attorney to properly evaluate your options. A conviction for any traffic offense can have an impact on your life, your insurance premiums, and your ability to drive a car. Though it may seem like a minor traffic matter, you should always talk to a local criminal defense attorney so you can be sure your rights are protected at every step of the criminal justice process.