Have you been accused of a hit and run? Call Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Robert M. Helfend today for a free case review – 800-834-6434.

Under California law, it’s illegal to leave the scene of a car accident that results in property damage or injury.

California’s hit and run laws fall under two different statutes. The first is Vehicle Code 20002 VC, which covers instances where a vehicle accident caused property damage. It’s treated as a misdemeanor. 

Hit and run causing the injury or death of a person is covered in Vehicle Code 20001 VC, and it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the facts of the case. 

If you’ve been accused of hit and run, you might be able to have your charges dropped by proving that you’ve been falsely identified as the driver, no property was damaged or you were unaware of the collision. Working one-on-one with a California criminal defense attorney will ensure that you have the strongest legal defense against hit and run charges. 

California misdemeanor hit and run – Vehicle Code 20002 VC

If you’re involved in a vehicle accident that results in property damage, you are legally required to stop your vehicle. Fleeing the scene or failing to stop is a crime according to Vehicle Code 20002 VC, California’s misdemeanor hit and run statute. 

The duty to stop applies regardless of who is at fault for the accident and whether or not the owner of the damaged property is present on the scene. For example, if you accidentally hit and damage a parked car in a parking lot or run over a mailbox in your neighbor’s yard, you are legally required to provide the owner of the damaged property with your name, address and insurance information. A conspicuous note to the owner of the property containing your identifying information is sufficient under Vehicle Code 20002 VC. 

In order to convict a defendant of misdemeanor hit and run, a prosecutor must prove the following:

  1. The defendant was involved in a vehicle accident while driving
  2. Someone else’s property was damaged as a result of the accident
  3. It is reasonable to assume that the defendant had knowledge of the accident that resulted in property damage
  4. The defendant intentionally failed to stop at the scene of the accident or to provide their identifying information to the owner of the property that was damaged as a result of the accident.

Vehicle Code 20002 VC applies to accidents that occur on public and private property. Additionally, injury or death of a pet is considered property damage if caused by a vehicular accident. 

California hit and run causing injury or death – Vehicle Code 20001 VC

Hit and run that causes injury or death to another person may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony under a different statute, California Vehicle Code 20001 VC. Hit and run causing injury or death may also carry different penalties than hit and run causing only property damage. 

Vehicle Code 20001 VC penalties include:

If charged as a misdemeanor

  • Up to 1 year in jail
  • Fines between $1,000 and $10,000

If charged as a felony

  • 2 to 4 years in California state prison
  • Fines between $1,000 and $10,000

What if there doesn’t seem to be any damage?

If you’re involved in a vehicle accident that doesn’t cause any damage to another person’s property (or injury to another person), it is not against the law to leave the scene. If your car is the only one that is damaged, you are not required to remain on the scene or leave any identifying information. However, property damage is not always immediately obvious and, if you’re involved in a vehicle accident, it is better to be safe than sorry. 

Some examples of vehicle damage that may not be visible or apparent include:

  • Broken bulbs in headlights or taillights
  • Changes to wheel alignment
  • Damage to the vehicle’s computer system
  • Cracks or breaks to internal parts resulting in leaks 

Additionally, if another person was involved in the accident, they may also experience injuries, such as soft-tissue damage, that are not immediately obvious. 

Even if you think that no damage or injury ensued from the accident or that only your vehicle was damaged, it is recommended that you stop at the scene, take photos of the other car or property to show that no visible damage occurred, and provide your information to the other party or property owner (by leaving a conspicuous note if they are not present). 

You may also be required by your insurance company to report the incident in order to avoid the denial of any potential claims related to the accident. 

Penalties for misdemeanor hit and run

Hit and run that only causes damage to property (and not injury or death) is always charged as a misdemeanor. Potential penalties include:

  • Up to 6 months in county jail and/or
  • Up to $1,000 in fines

Failing to provide your insurance information to the other party is a violation of Vehicle Code 16025 and may result in an additional fine of $250.

The use of civil compromises is no longer allowed by the court in California hit and run cases. 

However, it is possible that, upon review of your case, a judge may award you misdemeanor probation in lieu of the penalties listed above. 

Below are four California offenses related to Vehicle Code 20002 VC, hit and run.

Vehicular manslaughter – Penal Code 192c

In California, vehicular manslaughter occurs when someone causes the death of another person by driving in an unlawful or negligent manner. Whether the defendant acted with ordinary negligence or gross negligence determines how the crime is charged. If the defendant acted with ordinary negligence, then vehicular manslaughter is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in county jail. For instances involving gross negligence, Penal Code 192(c) becomes a “wobbler” that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The maximum sentence for felony vehicular manslaughter is six years in California state prison. In addition to the degree of negligence, the severity of the sentence also depends on the driver’s criminal record and whether or not they were intoxicated while driving. 

Driving with a Suspended license – Vehicle Code 14601.1(a)

Operating a motor vehicle while knowing that your driver’s license is suspended or revoked is a misdemeanor offense. Penalties for driving with a suspended license include a fine of up to $1000 with additional court costs and up to six months in county jail. 

Driving without a license – Vehicle Code 12500(a)

Under California Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC, it is a crime to operate a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license. Driving without a license is a “wobbler” that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or an infraction. An infraction is a less serious charge with penalties up to $250. A misdemeanor 12500(a) VC charge is more serious and is punishable by up to six months in county jail.

Exhibition of speed – Vehicle Code 23109(c) 

Accelerating to a dangerously high speed is a California traffic violation known as exhibition of speed. Also referred to as “speed ex” or “flooring it,” exhibition of speed is often done for attention or amusement including street racing. Exhibition of speed is a misdemeanor charge that is commonly included with charges of California Vehicle Code 23103, reckless driving. 

There are numerous legal defenses that can be used to fight hit and run charges. It is not uncommon for misdemeanor hit and run cases to be dismissed before going to trial if an effective defense strategy is used. Some strong legal defenses that may be used in a hit and run case include:

No knowledge of the collision

In a minor collision, it is possible for a driver to be unaware that a collision occurred. A small scrape or bump could be difficult to notice, especially on an uneven driving surface, or if music or other noise inside the car masked the sound of the collision. If this defense strategy is appropriate in your case, your defense attorney will likely seek out any video footage that may have been captured of the incident in order to demonstrate that you were unaware that the collision occurred. This strategy is less effective in cases involving newer vehicles that are equipped with sensors that are meant to alert the driver or nearby objects. 

No property was damaged

Under Vehicle Code 20002 VC, you are only required to stop if the accident caused damage to property. It is not necessary to stop if the only damage that occurred was to your own vehicle. Further investigation or inspection of the scene of the incident may prove that no other property was damaged, in which case your case may be dismissed. 

Mistaken identity

Oftentimes in a hit and run incident, the perpetrator speeds away from the scene, making it difficult for witnesses to get the car’s license plate number or other a good look at the car or driver. Because of this, it is not unlikely for a car or individual to be misidentified as the culprit. Surveillance videos, witness accounts, or a verifiable alibi may be able to prove that you were not the driver and are therefore innocent of the charges. 

In hit and run cases, video surveillance footage, witness testimony, and other evidence is often key to proving your innocence. A qualified California criminal defense attorney will know what evidence to gather and how to build the strongest possible defense according to the unique facts of your case. 

If you’re in need of an experienced and dedicated lawyer practicing in the Los Angeles area, Robert M. Helfend is here to assist you. With over three decades of experience and numerous awards, you can rest assured that you have one of LA’s top rated criminal defense attorneys on your side. Call today for your free case review – 800-834-6434.

Published October 13, 2023.