“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.
Sometimes a collision involves an unoccupied vehicle or unattended property. In this situation, many statutes 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.
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 car involved in a collision, who immediately takes the wheel and drives away.
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.
Later Is Better than Never: Suppression of Belated Accident Reports
A driver who flees after causing an accident, yet reports the accident several hours later, has violated the criminal prohibition against hit-and-run. But in some states, a late report by a driver who left the scene of an accident cannot be used against him or her in a subsequent criminal prosecution for the hit-and-run. If the driver has reported the collision within the prescribed time frame, such as 48 hours, the prosecution must prove that the defendant “hit and ran” without using the defendant's tardy report as evidence (the report, of course, would otherwise constitute a confession).
These laws are designed to assist accident victims by encouraging offending drivers to cooperate with the authorities. But on a practical level, one has to wonder: In states that suppress the report, how many hit-and-run drivers know that their report will not be used against them? Chances are that many fleeing drivers assume that their report will be usable at trial as evidence of their guilt, and decide to not make the report for that reason.
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 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.
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 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, 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 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 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. 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.