The short answer to the question of whether a hit-and-run is a felony in San Diego is—“It can be.” The circumstances surrounding the hit-and-run, will dictate whether it is charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. Both offenses are very serious, in resulting criminal penalties and long-term consequences. According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, in 2014 there were 526 hit-and-run collisions in San Diego in 2014 which resulted in a fatality or a serious injury. This does not include the many hit-and-run crashes which involve lesser injuries or property damage only.
A 2015 San Diego Tribute story stated that more than 3,200 people suffered serious injury in felony hit-and-runs in San Diego County from 2010-2015, and that 2015 was the deadliest year for hit-and-run crashes in the county in over a decade, with 23 deaths from hit-and-runs reported. The majority of those fatalities were pedestrians (17) with the remainder being reported under “other,” which could include drivers of automobiles, motorcycles or other motorized vehicles (Bicycles are a separate category; there were no hit-and-run bicyclist fatalities in 2015).
The reasons people might leave the scene of the accident include:
- The driver was unaware he or she hit a person;
- The driver was unlicensed or uninsured;
- The driver was injured and left to seek medical attention for himself or herself;
- The driver left the scene to call for medical attention for the other person involved in the accident;
- The driver was under the influence, or
- The driver was frightened and simply panicked.
If you were involved in a hit-and-run, you may truly not have realized you hit a person or a much smaller vehicle, particularly if you drive a very large vehicle. You may have feared for your own safety if the other driver was acting in an aggressive manner, or you may have another reason you left the scene of the accident. Whatever the situation, chances are you are not only worried about the other driver, you are worried about your own future as well.
Misdemeanor or Felony?
The first task your San Diego criminal defense attorney will have, is to determine whether you are being charged with a misdemeanor or felony. Generally speaking, if the accident involved only property damage, then under California Vehicle Code 20002, you will probably be charged with a misdemeanor. A hit-and-run misdemeanor occurs when you leave the scene of an accident without identifying yourself to the other party, and there was only property damage resulting from the collision.
These types of hit-and-runs are typically parking lot bump-ins. Many people are not even aware that they must, under the law, leave a note on the other person’s vehicle which clearly states how the accident occurred, and includes contact information. They are also unaware that they are required to remain at the scene of the accident (or leave a note, in the case of a parking lot fender bender) no matter who was at fault.
When the accident includes injury or death, you may be charged with felony hit-and-run. This is true no matter who was at fault in the accident, no matter the amount of damage inflicted, and no matter how serious the resulting injuries are. Therefore, even if another driver was obviously at fault for your accident you cannot legally drive away. If you damage another person’s fence, or hit their dog, you are legally obligated to either leave a note in a conspicuous place, or stop and talk to the owner.
Finally, if you drive away from an accident you caused—even if your own car was not a part of the collision—you could still be charged with a San Diego hit and run. This means if you are driving recklessly, tailgating and weaving in and out of traffic on the freeway, and an accident results, even if you were not a part of that accident, you must still stop and take responsibility for your actions.
Penalties Associated with Hit-and-Run in San Diego
If you are convicted of a misdemeanor hit-and-run, you could face up to six months in county jail, up to three years of informal probation, restitution to the victim of the property damage, and a maximum fine of $1,000. These are fairly steep penalties for property damage, but the penalties for a felony hit-and-run, are even harsher:
- A fine between $1,000 and $10,000;
- Up to three years in a California state prison (or up to four years, if the accident resulted in death or serious injury), and
- Victim restitution.
Potential Defenses for a San Diego Hit-and-Run
While your defense will depend on the circumstances surrounding your hit-and-run offense, the following defenses are among those most commonly used in such a situation:
- You were unaware you had been involved in an accident;
- Actual innocence—it was someone else involved in the accident rather than you, or
- Only your own car was damaged.
How a San Diego Hit-and-Run Attorney Can Help
If you have been charged with a San Diego hit-and-run, it is important that you contact an experienced San Diego criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Your attorney can assess the facts of your case, then determine the best defense to use on your behalf. Your attorney may be able to have your charges or penalties lowered, based on your lack of a criminal history, or other factors, and will work hard to ensure you suffer the least amount of criminal penalties and long-term consequences from your charges.
Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, APC
1230 Columbia Street Suite 565
San Diego, CA 92101