One kind of charge that comes up somewhat regularly in my Practice as a Criminal Defense Lawyer involves the Misdemeanor charge of Leaving the Scene of a Accident. Actually, there are two different kinds of Leaving the Scene charges: The one we'll discuss in this first article, is Leaving the Scene or a Property Damage Accident. In the next installment of this Blog, we'll examine the other, similar (but more serious) charge of Leaving the Scene of a Personal Injury Accident.
Leaving the Scene of a Property Damage Accident is often referred to as Leaving the Scene of a PD Accident, and is a violation of what's known as Michigan's Motor Vehicle Code. The Motor Vehicle Code is the collection of all Michigan Traffic Laws. A violation of any provision of the Motor Vehicle Code is considered a Misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in Jail, unless a different penalty is specified as part of a particular provision. Curiously, and somewhat redundantly, the specific provision of the Law concerning Leaving the Scene of a PD Accident includes a penalty of up to 90 days in jail for its violation.
The purpose of these Laws is relatively clear; to make sure people don't take off after an accident. Someone who's property has been damaged as the result of an accident, whether it's a car parked somewhere, or a mailbox, or whatever else, shouldn't be left "holding the bag" for those damages if the other driver was able to take off and get away undetected. In the vast majority of collisions (where a person was not driving while drunk, or high on drugs, or recklessly) the worst thing an at-fault driver faces is a Traffic Ticket for a Civil Infraction. In other words, the penalty for leaving is much worse than any possible penalty for whatever happened to cause the collision. The law applies equally to any driver involved in an accident, meaning that even a person who was clearly not at fault can't just leave the scene.
In the real world, there are 2 kinds of people facing this offense:
1. Those who had been drinking and left the scene to avoid getting arrested for a DUI, and
2. Everybody else.
A fairly typical real-life example involves someone hitting a parked car as the drive down a street. If the driver is sober, then, at worst, they might get a Traffic Ticket for their actions. If the driver has been drinking, however, they know that they're facing a DUI arrest, further complicated by the accident, if they wait around for the Police to show up. While even the most law-abiding citizen can become panic-stricken and make a poor decision and drive off, it's far more likely to happen when a person knows contact with the Police will certainly lead to a Drunk Driving arrest, for starters.
The way people get caught can range from being identified by someone to the driver themselves subsequently contacting the Police to belatedly report the accident. Most often, someone is able to identify the vehicle, and a License Plate is taken down. Using that, the Police can track the vehicle to its owner. If, for example, the Police track down a yellow car (that supposedly struck a black car parked on the street), with black paint smeared around fresh accident damage, it won't take Sherlock Holmes to put 2 and 2 together.
For those who self-report that they left the scene of a property damage accident, but do so way after the fact, the usual reason given is that they got "scared." From the Police point of view, the usual reason typically has more to do with being scared of a DUI arrest than anything else. Perhaps this is because a significant number of those drivers who flee from an accident scene, and are tracked down and found within a short time afterward, do, in fact, test positive for alcohol in their systems.
So what does all this mean for someone facing this kind of charge? The first thing to do, once it has been established that the case is "solid" enough to proceed (if the identification is weak, or there are other significant problems with the evidence, then fighting the charge should be considered as an option if winning is plausible), is for the Defense Lawyer to negotiate with the Prosecutor to reduce the charge from a Misdemeanor to a Civil Infraction. The benefit here should be obvious; a Misdemeanor conviction goes on a person's Criminal Record and can, at least theoretically result in a Jail Sentence (although that's highly unlikely to happen in this kind of case, absent some pretty aggravating circumstances). A Civil Infraction can only result in a fine, and perhaps a few point on the person's Driving Record.
Whether or not what amounts to the outright dismissal of a Criminal Charge in exchange for a Plea to a Traffic Civil Infraction can be accomplished will depend on many circumstances. Perhaps most important of all is the ability to demonstrate that the driver who left the scene did not do so because he or she was drinking. The more it looks like the person was drinking (to continue with our "parked car" example from above, say the person who looked out their window and saw the accident also observed the car weaving down the street beforehand), the less likely it becomes that they can work out such a huge break.
Even in those cases where things don't look too good, there is usually some break to be had, if the Defense Lawyer is willing to work hard enough to get it.
Whether driver who Leaves the Scene of a Property Damage Accident gets a huge break, or a little break, depends, perhaps more than anything else, on the particular facts and circumstances surrounding the accident itself.