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Is it hit and run if I flee an accident scene for safety reasons?
California’s hit & run laws require a person involved in an accident to stop and provide identifying information to the other parties. But do drivers have to stop if they fear for their safety or the safety of a passenger? The answer largely depends on the facts of the case.
1. What are California’s hit and run laws?
California’s hit and run laws are primarily codified in Vehicle Code 20001 and Vehicle Code 20002.
Per VC 20001, it is a crime for a person to flee the scene of a car accident in which another person has been injured or killed. A violation of this law can lead to felony charges punishable by custody in county jail for up to one year.1
Under VC 20002, it is a crime to flee the scene of an accident without stopping and providing identifying information, when the accident only caused property damage rather than injuries to another party. A violation of this code section is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to six months in jail.2
2. Do drivers have to stop if they have safety concerns?
An increasingly common issue in California involves people who fail to stop after an accident because of safety concerns.
For example, a driver may strike a pedestrian and then see an angry mob form. Or the driver may get in a fender-bender but notice that the other party is angry and potentially violent. Is it okay to flee the scene of the accident in these cases?
Technically, California hit & run laws offer no exception for this situation. But practically speaking, prosecutors have discretion as to which cases they file.
Typically they will look to see if the fleeing driver made some alternative way of reporting the accident. For example, suppose a driver immediately calls the police after an accident to report it and then asks the officer to meet her at the scene. She then returns to the scene once the police arrive. In a case like this, prosecutors are unlikely to file criminal hit & run charges. (Also refer to our article, “Five things NEVER to do if you are pulled over.“)
California Vehicle Code 20001 VC.
California Vehicle Code 20002 VC.
About the Author
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.