Most drivers know that if you're involved in an accident, you can't just drive away. When a driver gets into an accident and fails to stop and provide their information, it's often referred to as "hit and run." Hit and run—which goes by other names such as "violating the duty to give information and render aid"—is a criminal offense and can lead to penalties such as jail time, fines, and the loss of driving privileges.
This article goes over some common definitions of hit and run and the consequences of committing this offense.
"Hit-and-run" laws, also known as "stop-and-give-aid" laws, require drivers who are involved in collisions to:
The purpose of these laws is to ensure that those who are injured in car collisions receive needed medical attention for injuries and appropriate financial compensation for property damage.
Even when drivers are not at fault for the accident, those who fail to perform any of these acts can be criminally prosecuted. This rule, of course, makes a lot of sense because, regardless of who's at fault for an accident, it's important that everyone gets the help they need and that all the financial and other important details get sorted out.
Sometimes a collision involves an unoccupied vehicle or unattended property. In this situation, the laws of many states require that the driver leave a note providing specified contact information and a description of what occurred, then contact local law enforcement as soon as reasonably possible.
Some drivers may wonder whether the duty to stop is triggered as soon as the collision occurs, or whether some damage or injury is needed as well. The answer varies by state.
In many, the driver has a duty to stop, help, and provide identification as soon as the collision happens; it is no excuse that there was no injury or property damage. Other states require that the driver know of both the accident and resulting injury or damage before she or he is obligated to stop.
But again, in these latter states, circumstantial evidence can provide the needed proof. For example, it would be hard for a driver involved in a loud, daytime collision with a moving vehicle, which resulted in substantial damage to the other car, to claim no knowledge of any injuries or damage.
All hit-and-run laws require drivers to identify themselves, though they may differ in precisely how the driver is to provide this identification. The motorist's name and address are always required, but additional information, such as a driver's license number, may also be required.
Some courts have held that the driver must identify him or herself in the exact way that the state statute requires, while others have held that it suffices for the driver to provide the essential information. In the latter scenario, a name and telephone number may suffice.
Not surprisingly, providing false information, such as a fake name and address, does not satisfy the identification requirement. A driver who supplies false information may even face additional criminal prosecution.
In addition to showing that a driver violated one of the duties discussed above, prosecutors generally need to prove the driver knew about the accident. And, in some states, the prosecution might also be required to prove the offense occurred on a public roadway.
A driver must be aware of the collision before the duty to stop, provide identification, and render help arises. But circumstantial evidence—any fact that leads to a reasonable inference that something has occurred—is generally sufficient to prove that the motorist knew of the accident.
For example, evidence that a driver slowed down after the accident occurred, then sped up, will support the conclusion that he or she was aware of the accident. Other factors, like the noise of the collision or the fact that the fleeing party drove a much bigger vehicle than the other driver, may suggest that he or she perceived the accident.
So, while proof of knowledge is necessary for a conviction, drivers can't always avoid prosecution by claiming they didn't realize they were in an accident.
If the statute at hand does not specify that a hit-and-run must occur on a public road in order to violate that statute, a hit-and-run on private property will also violate the law. Also, it's generally true that "public road" includes not only public streets and roadways, but additionally, private properties (such as shopping center parking lots) that are open to the general public.
So whether the prosecution needs to present evidence of where the offense occurred just depends on the laws of the state.
As a misdemeanor, hit and run generally carries up to six months or a year in jail and fines that top out at about $1,000. The motorist could also face license suspension or revocation.
Felony hit-and-run convictions usually carry at least one year in jail or prison, thousands of dollars in fines, and mandatory license suspension or revocation.
The penalties can be extremely severe if the offense involved serious injuries or a death.
Hit-and-run prosecutions are not necessarily limited to people who were driving at the time of the accident. A passenger who encourages an at-fault, fleeing driver to leave the scene may be criminally liable. The same goes for a passenger in a car involved in a collision, who immediately takes the wheel and drives away.
In addition to facing criminal charges for a hit-and-run, a driver who flees the scene of an accident may be subject to civil liability. The injured person or owner of the damaged property may bring a lawsuit against the motorist not only for negligently causing the collision in the first place, but also for any injuries or damage that worsened because the driver did not provide assistance. This type of case could also result in punitive damages, which a meant to punish the driver rather than compensate the victim.
In addition, evidence that the driver fled may be admissible in court as evidence of consciousness of liability. According to this theory, a blameless driver is unlikely to hurry away from an accident scene.