Suppose you’ve been out with friends for the evening. You’ve had a couple of drinks, and while you might be flirting with the legal limit, you feel in control of your senses for the time being. Against your better judgment, you decide to get behind the wheel.
Halfway home, you crash into another vehicle at an intersection you’ve passed a hundred times before. You don’t know where the other car came from, but you also don’t remember actually driving to this intersection before the crash happened. You panic. Perhaps you’ve been arrested for DUI before, and you don’t want the police asking questions. You decide visually that (probably) no one was hurt, so without getting out of the car—you drive off.
You’ve just made a bad situation horribly worse for yourself. Even in the absence of witnesses, the forensic evidence will almost certainly place your damaged car at the scene. Now, in addition to your second DUI charge, you’ll be facing a separate hit-and-run charge.
As bad as this scenario sounds, it happens more frequently than you think. Consider, for example, the off-duty police detective (!) who was recently arrested for suspected DUI and hit-and-run after allegedly striking a bicyclist, leaving the scene and causing a second accident on the freeway a few minutes later. People you might least expect can do surprising things in a moment of panic. Nevertheless, California takes both DUI and hit-and-run seriously, and when they occur together, the consequences can be quite severe.
How California Law Deals with DUI and Hit-and-Run
California law addresses DUI and hit-and-run as two separate crimes. It is always illegal under California law to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It’s also illegal to leave the scene of an accident—no matter who is at fault—if the accident results in damage or injury. Both DUI and hit-and-run may be tried either as misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the circumstances and severity of the damage/injury. (If you’re legally inclined, check California Vehicle Code VC 20001 and VC 20002 for hit-and-run, and VC 23152 for DUI.)
What’s the significance of California treating DUI and hit-and-run as separate crimes? For you, it means committing hit-and-run in addition to DUI does not merely “enhance” your DUI to a more serious offense (for example, DUI child endangerment or Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated. Instead, you will face charges for each crime individually, each of which carries its own separate sentence if convicted. (More on this point momentarily.
Why Combining DUI with Hit-and-Run Can Put You in Greater Jeopardy
Leaving the scene of an accident where you were previously under the influence can complicate your life profoundly, severely and quickly. Here’s why:
• If you leave the scene while DUI, you can still cause more accidents, damage and injury because you’re still unsafe to drive. If you do crash a second time, you could face even more charges and restitution for damage caused. (A recent case illustrates this point perfectly: Just last month, according to local news reports, a suspected DUI driver in Sacramento collided with another vehicle, then after leaving the scene of the accident, the driver allegedly lost control of the vehicle, damaging two other vehicles and ultimately crashing on private property.)
• Since DUI and hit-and-run are charged separately, if you’re convicted and sentenced to prison, you may have to serve each sentence consecutively, rather than concurrently. In other words, you would start your second prison sentence after the first one ends, rather than serving them together.
• Sentencing is apt to be naturally more severe when DUI and hit-and-run occur together. In other words, your sentence may lean toward the maximum penalty for both crimes. Consider, for example, the repeat DUI driver from Palm Desert who recently turned herself in after leaving the scene of a fatal car crash while allegedly DUI. Upon pleading guilty in court, the judge immediately gave her 15 years to life in prison.
Perhaps you can see what we mean by making a bad situation much worse. Combining DUI with leaving the scene of the accident can do more than complicate your life—it can ruin it, for yourself and your loved ones as well as anyone you hurt. And in every case, DUI can potentially result in your own death.
Defending Against Hit-and-Run Charges
As with alleged DUI, it is certainly possible to be charged with hit-and-run wrongfully or inaccurately. Proving hit-and-run means the prosecutor must demonstrate that you willfully left the scene of an accident in which damage and/or injury occurred. Thus, defending against these charges usually involves some sort of extenuating circumstance that proves your lack of willfulness. For example, perhaps you inadvertently cut off another driver and didn’t notice him swerve off the road. (You couldn’t have willfully left the scene if you didn’t realize an accident occurred.)
Being involved in an accident is a difficult situation—even more so if you believe the accident could lead to a DUI arrest. But even if your worst fear comes true in that situation, leaving the scene can only amplify your trouble. Better to fight off the moment of panic than to act on it irrationally—and if you do end up facing a DUI charge, your options for a positive outcome are much greater than if you add hit-and-run to it. For compassionate legal representation in any case, call our offices today.