California Vehicle Code §§ 20001 VC-20004 VC)

A hit-and-run offense is exactly what it sounds like – while driving, you crash into something (typically another vehicle) or someone, then knowingly flee the scene without bothering to identify yourself (either in person or via a note) and your vehicle (by noting your license-plate or vehicle-identification number) to the property’s owner, the injured person, or, most importantly, the police.

In other words, even in a non-injury property-only collision, you’re supposed to immediately stop and, at minimum, leave a piece of paper with your name and contact information (including your residential address) so that the owner (or whoever controls the property) can reach you (20002 VC). But if you actually strike a person, you are compelled to actually identify yourself to a police officer; thus, pinning a note on your victim before you take off will not suffice to avoid criminal culpability.

If you hit-and-run property, you’ll likely be charged with a misdemeanor. A felony charge typically entails you striking and injuring (or killing) another person before leaving the scene (20001 VC, 20003 VC & 20004 VC). Regardless, the prosecutor has the ultimate say in the nature of the criminal charge against you. For example, if you were drunk or driving on a revoked license at the time of even a non-injury crash, or if you caused serious injury, you can be certain you’ll be facing a felony prosecution.

In the event of an injury, California law requires you to render ASAP as much assistance as reasonably possible to the wounded party – failure to do so will result in a likely felony charge. If you killed the victim, you are required to notify police (or California Highway Patrol in unincorporated vicinities) as soon as practically possible (i.e., without undue delay).

Also, the identifying information must be provided contemporaneously; thus, contacting the other party a day or two later will not suffice to satisfy your legal duty. Another of these duties requires that you provide your driver’s license upon request to the other party.

Examples of Misdemeanor Hit-and-Runs

– In late May 2007, LAPD arrested actress Lindsay Lohan (The Parent Trap) after a vehicle collision in Beverly Hills on suspicion of a misdemeanor hit-and-run, driving while intoxicated, and possessing cocaine. I mid-September 2012, Lohan was arrested for another misdemeanor hit-and-run after allegedly fleeing another vehicle collision. Six months later, she pled no contest to both hit-and-runs and was ordered to complete three months’ in-patient treatment at a rehabilitation facility; one month of full-time volunteer work; and a year-and-a-half of mental-health counseling sessions.

– In late May 2013, according to the LA City Attorney, singer Chris Brown (born Christopher M. Brown) – who was on formal probation at the time for assaulting his girlfriend at the time, the singer Rihanna, in February 2009 – plowed into another vehicle in LA but failed to give the person driving the other car any of his own information; and when the other person insisted he do so, Brown fled the scene in his car. One month later, he was charged with two misdemeanors: hit-and-run and operating a vehicle without a valid California driver’s license. His maximum possible sentence: one hundred and eighty days in the county lock-up (for the hit-and-run), not including any additional jail time for the probation violation, plus $2,000 in fines.

– In mid-May 1999, LAPD arrested comedian Andy Dick (born Andrew R. Dick) for allegedly ramming his vehicle into a traffic-light pole (following a boozy night of club-hopping on the Sunset Strip), after which he attempted to flee the scene. The DA’s Office later prosecuted Dick for felony cocaine possession, as well as the following misdemeanors: hit-and-run; DUI; possessing marijuana; and possessing drug paraphernalia. After successfully completing a year and a half of formal diversion, Dick’s judge eventually dismissed all the charges (after he had initially pled guilty to all of them).

– In late October 2019, LA police arrested model Lori Harvey, the twenty-three-year-old stepdaughter of famous comedian Steve Harvey (WB network’s The Steve Harvey Show; born Broderick Stephen Harvey) for allegedly committing a hit-and-run by crashing her car into a parked sedan in LA, then attempting to leave the scene on foot without providing her information as required by law. Police arrived after receiving a Nine-One-One call from a local resident who allegedly saw her walk away from the scene. The District Attorney’s Office charged her with misdemeanor hit-and-run involving property damage, and a misdemeanor for resisting a police officer, with a total maximum potential sentence of twelve months in county jail.

– In early November 2017, LAPD alleged that Hawthorne resident Shante Johnson led them on a high-speed pursuit through DTLA in a stolen moving van that resulted in damage to several parked automobiles before finally crashing into an LAPD patrol car in hot pursuit. Thirteen months later, after reaching an agreement with the DA’s Office, she pled no contest to a single misdemeanor hit-and-run with property damage, as well as several felonies for ADW (the van) and flight to escape a police pursuit. After awaiting in jail for almost ten months for trial, the judge gave her a suspended sentence of almost seven years in a state penal institution, sixty months of formal probation, twelve months of in-patient substance-abuse treatment, and a restitution order.

Examples of Felony Hit-and-Runs

– On Valentine’s Day 2020, LAPD arrested Angeleno John M. Maese on felony hit-and-run/DUI charges after he allegedly lost control of his vehicle on Fairfax Boulevard in LA while driving intoxicated, and, when he swung onto Beverly Boulevard, crushed a pedestrian’s legs to the point where he was forced to have them both amputated. Maese was arrested after he allegedly fled the scene. He was charged with two felony counts: hit-and-run causing injury and DUI with injury. He was also charged with a misdemeanor driving on a suspended or revoked license as a result of a [previous] DUI conviction. He also faced a sentencing enhancement for causing the victim catastrophic injury. A conviction could result in a maximum prison sentence of eight years.

– On October 6, 2016, Pasadena police arrested Mr. Donta A. Fox after he allegedly struck and killed a motorcyclist, local resident Oscar Chavez, with a stolen Tesla, then fled the scene. Fox then allegedly went on the lam for almost thirteen months until LAPD caught up with him in June 2018. At that time, the DA’s Office charged him with second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, hit-and-run with a fatality, and grand theft auto. With a sentencing enhancement for reportedly being a prior felon, he could expect to be sentenced to three-dozen years up to life if convicted of the most serious crimes. But in mid-December 2019, he was sentenced to seventeen years in prison after pleading no contest to gross vehicular manslaughter in consideration for the DA dropping all the other charges.

– In early January 2014, Brittnee M. Crawford allegedly drove while intoxicated and killed Paul K. Grover, who was jogging at the time in Playa Vista, then slammed into a utility pool before fleeing on foot. Crawford then allegedly went on the lam for four years until she was finally arrested. Unfortunately for her, detectives allegedly found her DNA in the car (she had provided a DNA sample as a result of a prior criminal incident) and, therefore, police were able to charge her. In April 2019, she pled no contest to a DUI with gross vehicular manslaughter. Six weeks later, the judge remanded her into custody so she could immediately begin serving an almost-seven-year prison sentence. Had Crawford been arrested after fleeing and was determined to have been intoxicated at the time of the collision, she would have likely received more than twice as many years in prison.

– During the late evening in mid-November 2011, Ryan Bowman allegedly struck (with his Bentley sedan) Lauren A. Freeman as she was crossing a cross-walk on Sunset Boulevard to hail the cab. Freeman was killed instantly, and Bowman allegedly kept driving and escaped, but left behind a sizeable piece of his sedan as evidence. The following day, LAPD officers allegedly discovered the sedan a few miles away from the impact scene, to which they were able to match the vehicle, based on the evidence on the car itself, as well as that left behind at the crime scene. And although the Bentley’s license plates were missing, detectives were allegedly able to tie the car to Bowman through the vehicle identification number and DMV registration info. Bowman turned himself in and was charged with gross vehicular manslaughter and related crimes. In early March 2011, Bowman pled guilty to a reduced charge: a felony for leaving the scene of an accident. As part of his plea, Bowman was forced to admit that he had, in fact, actually done everything the police had accused him of doing. Two weeks later, the judge sentenced him to one day short of a year in jail (with a week’s credit for time already served while awaiting arraignment and bail). With good behavior, he could have foreseeably been released in less than six months from the county jail (and possibly much earlier, depending on overcrowding conditions). He also received forty-eight months of formal probation. This deal was also contingent upon Bowman agreeing to make restitution to the victim’s family. (But Bowman’s plea immediately rendered him vulnerable to a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court since he had admitted to every fact in court and on the record. As one of the main producers of the infamous Girls Gone Wild videotape series, Bowman reportedly was a wealthy man.)

– Just before dawn on June 21, 2017, San Fernando Valley resident Andrew Flanigan was allegedly riding his large Harley chopper south on the Antelope Valley Freeway (California State Route 14) in one of two carpool lanes. At some point, he allegedly got into a heated argument with the driver of a Nissan sedan that was also heading south in the second (parallel) carpool lane. This allegedly led to Flanigan brandishing a military-style knife and kicking the passenger door of the Nissan with his boot. Unbeknownst to Flanigan, the passenger in a nearby vehicle allegedly filmed the entire incident on his iPhone, including when the Nissan crashed into the median, and Flanigan continued riding away from the scene. After striking the median, the Nissan allegedly bounced off and slammed into a Cadillac SUV in an adjoining lane, flipping it and injuring the driver. On January 10, 2018, Flanigan was finally arrested (by CHP) and charged with the following three felonies: hit-and-run with injury, ADW (assault with a deadly weapon), and reckless driving with injury with prior conviction. Eight months later, he pled no contest at the San Fernando courthouse to a single count of felony hit-and-run with injury, and received only thirty-six months of formal probation and six weeks of volunteer work. It appears that Flanigan’s attorney – it’s unclear whether it was a private lawyer or a deputy public defender -- was able to convince the prosecutor that none of the evidence, including the video (which viraled on YouTube) – definitely proved that he had not known about either collision.

Defenses Against Hit-and-Run Cases

Presenting compelling evidence that you were not the actual driver (i.e., someone else was behind the wheel) will obviously negate a hit-and-run charge. Otherwise, the prosecution’s case will largely depend on your state of mind – that is, your knowledge that you had struck an object or person (or animal) before driving away.

The other state-of-mind element the prosecutor needs to prove to secure a conviction is that you deliberately and willfully failed to stop after the accident. This directly ties into the specific-intent element of knowledge. It also presents a more challenging defense, which under the proper circumstances may be overcome by certain mitigating factors. Suppose, for example, that you were rushing your wife to the hospital to deliver a baby when you accidentally knocked over a stranger’s mailbox. Although you knew you had done so, and thereafter intentionally drove away, your actions would likely be excused because of the superseding emergency.

In other scenarios, you might even be able to legitimately question whether property damage or even injury occurred as a result of the accident. Perhaps the purported victim was trying to pull an insurance scam and so pretended to be hurt when he purposefully rolled himself over your hood as your drove by, then called the police.

Theoretically, you could establish that you did, in fact, provide the property owner (again, in a non-injury incident) with your contact information, but he or she either failed to receive it, or falsely claimed that you failed to provide it. In the former instance, for example, your note may have falled off the other car’s windshield, but fortunately you had videotaped yourself leaving the note. In the latter instance, the owner may have tossed your note away on purpose so that he or she could gain some sort of advantage over you in a potential lawsuit. Or maybe you had given your info to the property owner’s relative (or occupant in the other car) who then misplaced it.

Everything will come down to whether the jury believes you acted reasonably and otherwise fulfilled all your lawful obligations under these statutes.

If there was an injury and you did try to help the victim, you may have to convince a jury that you did so reasonably. For example, the victim’s leg was bleeding profusely so you exerted your best effort to fashion a tourniquet out of your necktie, but unfortunately she passed away from blood loss while you went to find additional assistance.

Sources: Veh. Code §§ 20001 VC-20004 VC & CALCRIM 2140 & 2150.

Conviction Consequences for Hit-and-Runs

If you’re convicted of a felony hit-and-run-with injury, you will get anywhere from one to four years in prison. A misdemeanor conviction will expose you to a maximum of six months in jail (again, assuming no one was injured).

If you received a jail or no-jail term, you will also end up with three or five years of probation for misdemeanors and felonies, respectively. (Any prison sentence automatically renders you ineligible for probation under state law.)

You’ll also be fined one thousand dollars and ten thousand dollars for misdemeanors and felonies, respectively.

Next, the judge may also require you to perform community service (usually instead of jail) and pay victim restitution.

Further, you will face adverse consequences with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, with a minimum of two points accruing to your record up to a restriction, suspension, or even permanent loss of your driving privileges. The sanction will be determined at a DMV administrative hearing.

Finally, if you are any sort of licensee (as a doctor, lawyer, real estate agent, etc.), you may face the suspension or loss of that license. Immigration or military service consequences, if applicable, may also result from a hit-and-run conviction.

Our Own Approach to Defending Hit-and-Runs

Whenever possible in non-injury/misdemeanor hit-and-runs, we will try to work out what’s commonly known as a civil compromise (Cal. Pen. C. sections 1377 PC & 1378 PC). This is where the victim is willing to accept financial remuneration from our client as restitution for the property damage. In such instance, once the victim is made financially whole, the judge will then dismiss the case, including over any objection by the prosecuting lawyer.

Likewise, if you are a first-time offender, we will make every possible effort to secure a diversion program – either formal or informal – instead of incarceration. Under this program, you would plead guilty to a misdemeanor or felony charge, but sentencing would be put off until you’ve had a chance to complete all the other requirements – namely, probation, community service, counseling, victim repayment, etc. Once that happens, the judge will then change your plea to one of not guilty and dismiss the entire case. Diversion is usually reserved for misdemeanor hit-and-runs, but also occasionally for property-damage-only felony cases.

Thus, under both civil compromise and diversion programs, you would have no criminal record (although your arrest will remain in all relevant databases).

Hit-and-runs are also similar to DUIs in the sense that adverse DMV consequences are likely to result, as well as, again, possible adverse licensing, employment, or immigration issues. Therefore, we always take a comprehensive approach to handling these cases. And although we also always personally represent the client at the DMV administrative hearing, we may bring onboard other attorneys or specialists with whom we’ve worked for years and who specialize in those other areas. It always amazes us when we see other defense counsel advising their clients to take felony deals or even certain misdemeanor no-contest or guilty pleas without also advising them that doing so will cost them their livelihood or even their lawful residence status here.

Pre-File Services Offered By the Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm

Sometimes, if necessary, we’ll hire an accident reconstructionist expert to either consult us on the hit-and-run matter or even serve as a testifying expert witness, depending on the test results and their professional opinion.

Particularly in these kinds of cases, visual aids – including animated, digital, and CGI reconstructions – can be powerfully persuasive tools and enable juries to get a clearer understanding of the facts. In fact, we have enjoyed considerable success in convincing the DA’s Office not to pursue hit-and-run prosecutions where our evidence showed, for example, that the vehicle collision was entirely the fault of the other driver. We have even been able to successfully argue that our client, who had a prior DUI conviction, was not the driver at fault – despite the fact that he had blown just under the legal limit of .08 at the time of his arrest.

We refer to these as Pre-File cases, meaning that the client hired us either at the beginning of the criminal investigation, or shortly after the case has been referred for prosecution to the DA’s Office. In this type of situation – i.e., where the DA’s Office or even the police detectives investigating the case are still trying to recreate the accident and determine your culpability – you should move as quickly as possible to consult with a competent attorney.