One of the most common driving offenses we handle is “Leaving the Scene of a Property Damage Accident,” or, as it’s sometimes written, “Leaving the Scene of a PDA.” This is a natural component of our practice, focusing, as it does, on cases and charges connected to the operation of motor vehicles. Although I have written about “leaving the scene” charges in the past, the makeup of these cases has changed somewhat in recent years, and our typical clients today are a bit different from those a few years ago.
This is because, in the past, the usual person facing “leaving the scene” charge had taken off because they had been drinking, and didn’t want to get popped for a DUI. While there are still plenty of those cases, we see more people now than ever before who leave the scene, not because they had been drinking, or to avoid a DUI, but for other reasons, like being genuinely freaked out, not having a valid driver’s license, or not even being aware their vehicle made contact with anything. In fact, most of the leaving the scene cases we’ve handled in the recent past have NOT involved any drinking whatsoever.
While this is important, the problem is that everyone’s first suspicion is that the person left the scene to avoid a DUI. In practice, everyone charged with leaving the scene of a PDA will say that he or she wan’t drinking. Nobody ever steps up (at least to the police or anyone else in the criminal justice system) and admits to having had anything to drink before driving. In other words, a denial is expected in EVERY case, whether or not it’s true. When someone was genuinely not drinking, part of our jobs, as the lawyers, is to make the prosecutor and the court really believe that.
To be sure, my team and I do good work and get the best plea bargains and sentence deals possible in these cases no matter what the circumstances, but sometimes, when a person really didn’t take off to avoid a DUI, we can capture enough of their attitude and righteous indignation to really convince the prosecutor to make a super-sweet deal, and persuade the Judge to treat the matter as more of a one-off, rather than anything else.
Doing that, of course, depends in large part on the person and his or her prior record, or lack thereof. If, for example, Pete the Parolee, who was just recently released from prison and has a long criminal record, went out one night, rear ended a parked car, took off, and wound up getting charged with leaving the scene of a PDA, (and assuming the evidence against him is solid), he isn’t going to get anything near the same kind of break as Gainfully Employed Gary, who also rear ended a parked car and left, but, has a relatively clean prior record.
The less of a record you have, the better. Unless you’ve been convicted of an offense punishable by mandatory life without parole, this holds true in any and every case.
More often than not, a person leaves the scene without being detained, only to later get a call from the police about the incident. That brings me to the one, universal bit of advice about talking to the police:
This is a million dollar piece of legal advice, freely given. Seriously, if you watch any TV news program about a big case, you will often see panels of the best criminal lawyers in the country, and the one thing they ALL agree upon, without exception, is that a person should exercise his or her right to remain silent and not talk to the police, or anyone, except their own lawyer.
This, of course, means to not say anything at all about the incident, or anything about the day it happened.
In the real world, by the time most people decide to invoke their constitutional right against self-incrimination ( the right to remain silent), it’s after they’ve talked a little, and usually, at that point, the damage is done. I’ll circle back to how to handle this politely, and without sounding like a jerk, but for now, let me illustrate my point about how saying anything at all can create huge problems.
Imagine that Runaway Ronnie is driving home from work one day, and he accidentally sideswipes another car. For purposes of our example, it really doesn’t matter if Ronnie knew he made contact with the other vehicle or not. The other driver calls the police and reports that she was struck by a small, dark colored SUV. The next day, Officer Friendly learns that the vehicle alleged to have left the scene is registered to Ronnie’s wife. The officer calls Ronnie’s home with some questions for the owner of the vehicle:
Officer: Were you driving your 2016 Ford Escape, in the area of Maple and Oak Streets yesterday at any time?
Ronnie’s wife: No, sir, even though it’s registered to me, that’s my husband’s car.
Officer: Was your husband driving the car yesterday?
Ronnie’s wife: Yes, I”m sure he was; he takes it to work every day.
Officer: Where does your husband work, M’am?
Ronnie’s wife: He works at Acme Products, in Gotham City.
Officer: So he would have been in the area of Maple and Oak Street in Gotham City around 5:30 p.m yesterday?
Ronnie’s wife: Yes, he has to take Oak Street to the freeway to get to and from work.
Now, no matter what else is asked or answered, the officer knows that the vehicle reported to have left the scene of the accident was in the area the day it happened, and he knows who was driving it. It would be easy to change a few details of this conversation around a bit so that the officer was talking to Ronnie, instead of his wife, but the upshot is the same: the officer has confirmed that the vehicle was in the vicinity of the accident the day it happened, and now knows who was behind the wheel.
Imagine, instead, that Ronnie’s wife knew how to better deal with the situation, and handled the call this way:
Officer: Were you driving your 2016 Ford Escape, in the area of Maple and Oak Streets yesterday at any time?
Ronnie’s wife: Hmm, I’m not sure who had the car yesterday, or where it was. Why do you ask?
Officer: M’am, I just need to know where that vehicle was yesterday, and if you can tell me who was driving it.
Ronnie’s wife: Well, I’m not sure, and I really don’t want to answer any questions.
Officer: M’am, could you just tell me –
Ronnie’s wife: Officer, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I decline to answer anything further.
Again, whatever else is said by the officer, if Ronnie’s wife (or Ronnie, if it was him on the phone) says nothing more, than the officer does not have any confirmation that the car was in the area of the accident yesterday, or who was driving it, or that anyone was driving it, beyond the description given the other driver, who could, after all, be wrong.
There is a lot to this, but the main point is that by confirming the car was in the area of the accident, or identifying the driver, or merely confirming that it was driven at all, a lot of what would otherwise need to be established to make a case against Ronnie will have been admitted. Imagine, for example, if the ID of the car that left the scene was based only upon a partial license plate number.
Over the course of our years, we have seen people NOT have charges brought against them because they held firm to keeping quiet and there was simply not enough proof that they were in the area of an accident, or have seen any charges that were brought collapse because of insufficient proof.
That will never happen when a person talks to the police and admits to being near the accident, or having driven the specific vehicle.
It’s always important to be polite and respectful of the officer, but understand that he or she is an expert interrogator, and skilled at drawing people into answering questions. Beyond your name and address, you should decline to say anything more without a lawyer. The more you feel pushback on that, the more you need to hold your ground.
As I noted, in the real world, by the time someone does decide to remain silent, it’s usually after having talked already and then realizing that they have said too much. In such cases, they’re always right about having said too much.
This means that in the vast majority of leaving the scene cases we see, it’s too late to “beat” a case by remaining silent. Instead, the usual case that comes through our office has more than enough proof, whether by admissions, witness identification, or a combination of both, to have brought the charge, and for it to “stick.”
This is where the skill of the lawyer matters in negotiating a plea bargain.
The primary goal, of course, is to avoid a criminal conviction of any kind and keep anything from going on a person’s record. The best type of plea in these situations involves a negotiated bargain that will dismiss the misdemeanor charge altogether in exchange for a plea to a civil infraction.
If there was any damage to someone’s property, any such plea bargain will always require that restitution be made in full and the person paid back. When such a deal can be had, a person avoids any criminal conviction, and that, in and of itself, is a HUGE break.
How we go about achieving this depends on a number of factors. The location of the case is really important, as are the circumstances of the case itself, including facts about the person facing the charge. Thus, Pete the Parolee is going to have a hard time getting any kind of deal, if he can get one at all, no matter who he hires as a lawyer, whereas if Gainfully Employed Gary’s attorney knows his or her way around these matters, then a getting a generous break will be much easier.
As you look for a lawyer, the first thing to keep in mind is to go local, and by that, I mean a lawyer from the general area of your case (not just down the block). Our criminal practice is limited to the Tri-County area Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb (although we will usually go to Livingston and St. Clair Counties for cases like this, as well). That’s “local.”
Key to our success is knowing how things are done in the courts of the Metro-Detroit area because we go to them regularly. By contrast, I don’t think it’s a good idea to drag a lawyer from the other side of the state into a court where he or she is a stranger. It’s not good if your lawyer needs directions to the courthouse. Remember, you should be paying for his or her experience in resolving cases like yours, not his or her tuition to learn how things are done is some court that’s new to him or her.
Beyond that, do your homework. To find the right lawyer, you should see what they have written about these cases, how they explain themselves. When you’ve read around, then make some inquiries and check around. Ask questions. For our part, all of our consultations are free, confidential, and done over the phone, right when you call. My team and I are very friendly people who will be glad to answer your questions and explain things. We can be reached Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., at 586-465-1980.