Leaving the scene of an accident can qualify as a misdemeanor or felony depending on the circumstances, such as the level of injury of any parties involved (including passengers or pedestrians). Regardless of which party is at fault for the accident and even if there is no damage to any vehicles, property or people involved, it is still a crime to leave the scene of any accident without performing certain duties. One must know they are in an accident, have been driving, and fail to perform a legal duty. In most states the legal duty is an exchange of information which includes but is not limited to driver’s license, insurance and some way to contact all parties involved. If there is injury, it is also a duty for those that are able, to render reasonable assistance, such as calling an ambulance. In some instances, a passenger can also be charged with this crime if they had authority to direct and control the vehicle.
This is not a strict liability crime; there are circumstances which would allow one to leave the scene of an accident. As with all affirmative defenses, the burden is on the defense to establish them by a preponderance of the evidence. This would occur subsequent to the prosecution presenting evidence of the aforementioned elements. This means that it may need to be presented to a jury or judge first. Simply telling the prosecutor or judge a version of events establishing a defense may not be enough. One example of an affirmative defense would be self-defense. If any of the parties are threatening harm to you or people which you might need to remove from harms way, you are given the right to leave without exchanging information.
Other defenses are similar in nature to self-defense in that they are meant to prevent greater harm than was caused by the accident itself. Those defenses would be necessity and duress. Duress would be when the driver is threatened with harm if they stop to perform their legal duties. This would also be an example of where the passenger can be charged, or whomever is directing the driver, as mentioned earlier. The danger to life when presenting duress as a defense must be immediate; threat of future harm is not enough.
Necessity, or emergency, would be that the driver acted to prevent bodily harm to themselves or someone else, had no adequate legal alternative, that they did not create a danger greater than the one avoided, that leaving the scene was necessary to prevent the threatened harm or evil, and a reasonable person would have acted the same under the circumstances presented and that the driver did not substantially contribute to the emergency. This particular defense would seem to only be available in this situation if the driver were not at fault for this accident however, the emergency need not be the accident itself, ie. The seat belt holding the car seat in the back seat failed and the baby was smashed against the front seat, isn’t breathing, with a hospital being around the corner.
Even with the existence of one of these defenses, it is not an automatic “get out of jail free” card. One is still required to report the accident as reasonably possible to authorities after it occurs. This usually does not mean a month later, or that one meant to report it, when they got off work the next day because they were busy. There is also no defense in stating that you did not have a license, insurance or that you do not like giving out your contact information because you do not know the person you were involved in the accident with; contact information is the most important of the information to be provided.
Elements and crimes vary from state to state. If you or someone you know is charged with any crime, as always, you should consult your local state Barred attorney, preferably one practicing only criminal law. You can always look for your local criminal attorney at http://www.crimelawyers.org/.