Q Oops! I just got into a car accident. What should I do?
AThere are a couple of things the law requires you to do. If nobody is injured, each driver must exchange information, including driver’s license, registration, current address, and insurance information before going on his or her way.
If someone was hurt, in addition to all the above, the drivers must make reasonable efforts to assist injured persons, calling the police or an ambulance, or if that is not possible, transporting them to obtain medical aid.
The law provides harsh penalties for “hit and run,” as the crime of leaving the scene of an accident without exchanging information is known. The accident, being involuntary, is not a crime. The illegal part is the failure to do what the law requires once an accident happens.
Depending on the severity of the accident, the runner could face felony charges. If, for example, someone died or suffered a permanent, serious injury, the district attorney could charge a felony, carrying a maximum punishment of four years in state prison.
Only such a charge would result in an extremely serious case. The vast majority of hit-and-run cases involve only property damage and result in misdemeanor charges.
If you find yourself charged with a hit-and-run, you should find a good lawyer. The penalties can be quite severe and it would be worthwhile figuring out a defense.
One method to have the case dismissed outright is called a “civil compromise.” This method works in cases where nobody was injured and when minor police involvement discovered the runner. The first step is to pay for the damages. The attorney then requests the injured party to sign a declaration that he or she has been compensated in full for all damages caused by the hit-and-run. Finally, the attorney presents the declaration to a judge and asks the court to dismiss the case.
The civil compromise is effective because the defendant essentially has taken it upon himself to redress the damages he caused. Once this happens, there is no longer a public interest in prosecuting him.
If you are involved in an accident, please remember to remain on the scene till the neccessary information is exchanged. If the police arrive, identify yourself to them and provide them with the same information. If you do leave before exchanging information, go to the police station soon thereafter and take care of your legal obligations, or contact a lawyer. Chances are that someone took down your license number and reported you to the police.
Naresh Rajan is an attorney in San Mateo County. Email firstname.lastname@example.org